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.

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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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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia