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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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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