Voters are choosing the best of a bad bunch

Two very different opinion polls yield ultimately similar results

Two very different opinion polls were published in the tabloids this morning.

A ComRes poll for the Sunday Mirror shows the Tories on 38 per cent, Labour on 29 per cent, and the Lib Dems on 19. This is a drop of 4 points for the Tories since the last ComRes poll and, if repeated at the general election, would leave the Conservatives five seats short of an overall majority.

As Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report points out, this is a direct reversal of the 4-point gain seen in the last ComRes poll, and marks a return to the results shown in the previous poll.

This is in tune with the pattern that has emerged over the past few months of polling. Fluctuations of a few points that indicate either a hung parliament, or a skin-of-the-teeth majority for the Tories, are invariably heralded as a remarkable blow or triumph for one party or the other, depending on which paper you're reading. Yet all these numbers really show is a depressing lack of conviction on the part of voters, and a continued sense that we're just picking the best of a bad lot.

An ICM poll for News of the World takes a different approach, focusing exclusively on 97 Labour-held marginal seats. For the uninitiated, marginal seats are those where the incumbent holds a small majority of votes; they are theoretically easier for the opposition to win. This poll gives the Conservatives 40 per cent, a 9.2 per cent hike on the last election. Labour gets 37 per cent, which is 7.4 per cent down from 2005, and the Liberal Democrats 14 per cent, a reduction of 3.8 per cent.

There is a slightly larger swing towards the Tories in the constituencies where they really need to win than in the country as a whole. But, as Mike Smithson at PoliticalBetting points out, the poll excludes Liberal Democrat-held marginal seats, which might be tougher for the Conservatives to win.

Further details in the ICM poll confirm that the swing towards the Tories is more to do with disillusionment with the Labour government than any active enthusiasm for the Conservatives. Just 28 per cent of respondents recalled seeing signs of Conservative campaigning in their area -- roughly equivalent to the 24 per cent who recalled seeing Labour campaigning.

Of two polls published on the same day, then, one shows encouragement for Labour and one hope for the Tories. The insistence of both parties that this is the election for change does not seem to have penetrated the inertia enveloping the electorate.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's Virgin video is a Jennifer's Ear for modern times

Just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true, regardless of the creative shortcuts.

Memory is a funny thing, in politics as in life. Gordon Brown was the co-architect of New Labour, the longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1823 and very probably helped avert the end of money during the financial crisis.

But when James Morris, Ed Miliband’s pollster, ran focus groups in Nuneaton earlier this year, they  found that the incident that most people associated with Brown was of him punching a protestor during the 2001 general election. Except, here’s the thing: Brown never threw the punch at all. It was John Prescott, the then-deputy Prime Minister, who landed the blow.

And although Piggate was the funniest furore that David Cameron (remember: he was accused of having put his penis in a dead pig’s mouth at university) was involved in, it wasn’t the dead pig that focus groups remembered when they were asked about Cameron – right throughout his premiership, it was photos of Cameron cycling to work with a car carrying his papers following on behind that stuck in people’s minds.

The appeal of the latter row, and with the spat between Virgin Trains and Jeremy Corbyn, is that it feeds into an idea that is commonly believed by most people: that politicians are hypocrites. Our brains reward us with feelgood sensations for confirming our beliefs and with negative ones with findings that run contrary to them.

In case you haven’t followed: in the beginning, a viral video of Jeremy Corbyn depicted the Labour leader eschewing a first class upgrade to work in the aisle of a crowded Virgin train. Today, Virgin Trains hit back, revealing CCTV footage showing that there were, in fact, spare seats available from the start of the journey.

Of course, it is in Virgin’s interests to push back against a high-profile criticism of its services (not so much to avoid renationalisation but also the loss of the contract to another company) just as it is in Corbyn’s to have a sharper, video-friendly version of the – 100 per cent authentic – images of him on a bus home that frequently exploded on Twitter and Facebook during last summer’s Labour leadership election.

It feels very close to the so-called “War of Jennifer’s Ear”, the row that erupted over a Labour party political broadcast about the effects of 13 years of Conservative rule on the NHS in 1992. The  advert was based loosely on the operation of a girl whose father, John Bennett, had written to Robin Cook, then Labour’s shadow health secretary.

But the consultant in charge of the operation, who had blamed under-funding in a letter to the Bennett family before the advert came out, U-Turned once the broadcast had aired. (To make matters worse, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother, both Conservatives, also denounced the broadcast.)

Labour was plunged into controversy. The rights and wrongs of the row are still contentious, just as this row is likely to remain too. And it emerged very swiftly that key elements of the planning of the broadcast were shambolic – Cook’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the case were not as thorough as might have been hoped, the consultant had not been spoken to in detail, and the Toryism of Jennifer’s mother and grandmother came as a total shock. It may be that similar behind-the-scenes errors emerge about the Virgin video.

But just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true – operations were cancelled and delayed due to underfunding, there are numerous trains that are overcrowded, where people have to sit in aisles, and so on.

Of course, Corbyn has a particular glass jaw over any issue that appears to be “spun” due to his “kinder politics” line. Just as Tony Blair promised to be “purer than pure”. it's a pledge that is the political equivalent of handing your opponent a stick and then politely explaining how best to hit you with it.  

Although the row over Jennifer’s Ear is now largely forgotten, it was one of the many scapegoats for Labour’s shock defeat in 1992, albeit one that every serious study into the loss concluded had nothing to do with the final result. (And it’s worth pointing out that even losing a row about the issues that your party “owns”, be it health or what to do with the railways, tends to be better for your side than talking about issues on which your party is on hostile territory)  Corbyn’s sitting arrangements, like the ear, will have a similarly limited afterlife. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.