How was Labour polling before Brown?

Jack Straw was wrong to claim "the polls are better now"

One of the most curious cabinet statements issued in support of Gordon Brown during the coup attempt was that of Jack Straw.

He said:

The polls are better now than they were immediately before Gordon Brown took over. Our fortunes are linked to the fortunes of the country and indeed the economy . . . I do not think there is an issue about the direction that Gordon Brown and the cabinet and the government as a whole are trying to lead this country.

Straw is renowned as the cabinet's top poll-watcher, but I've dug out the figures from UK Polling Report and he's wrong. The final poll before Brown took office on 27 June 2007 put Labour on 32 per cent, 5 points behind the Conservatives. That's a better result than the Observer poll late last year which put Labour 6 points behind the Tories and provoked such euphoria among Labour activists.

Another poll, carried out by Ipsos-MORI a week before Brown took over, actually put Labour 3 points ahead of the Tories. Throughout May and June the party regularly polled only 2 or 3 points behind the Tories, enough to make Labour the largest single party in a hung parliament.

By comparison, the most recent polls on the day Straw spoke gave the Conservatives a lead of 9 to 10 points.

The casual belief that Labour became fantastically unpopular under Tony Blair is not supported by the evidence. It was Blair's unpopularity with Labour MPs that ensured his political death.

Here are the full figures from June:

24/06/07

Communicate/Independent: Con (37%) Lab (32%) Lib Dems (18%)

20/06/07

Ipsos-MORI/Observer: Lab (39%) Con (36%) Lib Dems (15%)

15/06/07

YouGov/Sunday Times: Con (37%) Lab (35%) Lib Dems (14%)

03/06/07

Populus/Times: Con (36%) Lab (33%) Lib Dems (17%)

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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