Could Labour win the election?

Tory lead falls to just 2 points.

New Statesman - Polls Guide_1267355604099

Latest poll (Sunday Times/YouGov): Labour nine seats short of a majority.

"Gordon Brown on course to win election" is a headline almost no one would have expected to see at this stage of the electoral cycle. But today's YouGov poll confirms what a terrible start the Conservatives have made to their campaign. It puts the Tories on 37 per cent, just 2 points ahead of Labour, and the party's lowest lead since December 2008.

If the figures were repeated on a uniform swing at the election, Labour would emerge as the largest single party in a hung parliament, nine seats short of an overall majority.

The poll is particularly alarming for the Tories for two reasons. First, it suggests that the potential number of Labour voters is far higher than previously thought.

Second, it suggests that the Tories suffer when their policies come under sustained scrutiny. Brown's call for voters to "take a second look at us, and a long, hard look at them" seems to have resonated with the media and the public.How else can we explain the Conservatives' precipitous decline?

New Statesman poll of polls

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Labour 28 seats short of a majority.

As I've pointed out before, the fragile nature of the economic recovery appears to be working in Brown's favour -- it strengthens his argument that immediate spending cuts would damage the economy and upsets the Tories' message. The poll also confirms that the bullying allegations against the PM have done no damage to Labour's support. It may be that the voters actually rather like being led by someone with a bit of a temper.

Brown will surely now be tempted to call an election while the political momentum is with Labour and go to the country in April. But I'd still be surprised if he doesn't plump for 6 May in order to avoid the cost of holding two separate elections.

As a word of caution to Labour optimists, it's worth pointing out that there's still almost no chance of Brown winning an overall majority. Boundary changes mean that Labour's 66-seat majority has fallen to a notional lead of 48. This leaves Cameron with only 24 seats to win to knock off Labour's overall advantage. I expect the Tories still to be leading in the key marginals.

But for Labour to emerge as the largest single party would be an astonishing turnaround. That the Tories are still struggling to defeat a government battered by recession and the expenses scandal is quite remarkable.

Can Cameron lead a successful Tory comeback? He has done so before, of course, in the run-up to the election-that-never was. We'll begin to find out later today.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.