Populus poll shows effects of Labour coup attempt. Or does it?

The party loses 2 points as the Tories gain 1, but support for Brown has increased

The Times has published its monthly Populus poll, taken over the weekend. The headline figures were 28 per cent for Labour, 41 per cent for the Tories and 19 per cent for the Liberal Democrats.

This is 2 points down for Labour and 3 points up for the Tories on the last Populus poll, in early December, and appears to show that the plot against Gordon Brown by Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon has damaged Labour in the eyes of voters. It follows an ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend that gave Labour 30 per cent and the Conservatives 40 per cent, reported with the headline: "Week of bungled plots boosts Labour in poll".

It is possible that the Telegraph poll was simply taken too soon after the event to show the ripple effect, but it's also worth noting that the Telegraph/Times polls display results within 2 points of each other, despite their totally different interpretations of events (the Times poll is headlined "Poll shows failed coup hit Labour hopes hard"). The electorate is still lukewarm, and the press apparently divided on how to portray voters' reaction to the latest developments in Westminster.

Mike Smithson at PoliticalBetting points out that the Populus poll is especially interesting, as it is "the pollster that has tended to produce the best numbers for the [Labour] party and the lowest for the Tories".

The poll also shows that support for Brown has actually been bolstered. Forty-one per cent of general voters believe that he is the best leader for Labour at present, up 8 points since last September. Among Labour supporters, the figure was up 9 points to 71 per cent.

Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report attributes this to "sympathy", but, as my colleagues have repeatedly argued here, it may have a lot more to do with the timing (so close to the general election), and -- vitally -- the absence of a clear successor to Brown for rebels to gather around.

This is supported by further evidence from the poll. While 12 per cent said they could think of another Labour politician who would make a better leader, nearly half of this group said, when pressed, that they didn't know who, or couldn't remember.

Labour pundits should also take note that while David Cameron continues to lead overall, 50 per cent of people said that he was on the side of the rich over ordinary people, while 42 per cent disagreed. This shows that the "class war" strategy, though it sounds crude when put in those terms, could still be effective. Issues of fairness, such as inheritance tax, remain the Achilles heel of the Tories, and Labour would do well to capitalise upon this.

Meanwhile, 64 per cent said that Brown was on the side of ordinary people, with just 26 per cent saying he was for the rich. The improvement was primarily among unskilled working-class voters, showing that, despite the horror of Peter Mandelson, among others, at the prospect of appealing too heavily to Labour's core vote, it might not be such a bad idea. As Rachel Sylvester points out in the Times today, while such voters alone might not make enough of a difference to win the election, it will not help Labour if they stay at home or vote BNP.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.