Labour’s poll performance is no “red herring”

The largest cuts since the 1920s will make the coalition fantastically unpopular.

Over at Left Foot Forward, Professor Philip Cowley, formerly of the much-missed Revolts, argues that Labour's impressive poll performance is a "red herring".

In response to the latest Ipsos MORI/Reuters poll, which put Labour and the Tories neck and neck on 37 per cent, he writes:

After losing in October 1951, Labour had pulled ahead by January 1952, but it didn't stop the Conservatives enjoying 13 years in government. In 1970, after a June election, Labour were level by October; that didn't stop Ted Heath polling more votes four years later, even if he didn't secure enough seats to cling on.

He adds that Labour "led Mrs T's cutting government within a month of the [1979] election", but was still out of power for the next 18 years. "Don't get too excited, we've been here before," is Cowley's message.

But there are good reasons to believe that 2010 will prove atypical. For a start, the cuts planned by the coalition, the largest since the Geddes Axe of the 1920s, are greater than anything we saw under the Iron Lady.

Many on the left are unaware that, despite her neoliberal ideology, spending actually rose during Margaret Thatcher's premiership. While education and health were neglected, spending on defence, law and order and welfare payments (thanks to mass unemployment) continued to grow.

Overall, public spending under Thatcher -- from 1978-79 to 1989-90 -- rose by 1.1 per cent a year on average.

There has, therefore, never been in living memory an austerity drive of the sort planned by the coalition. Figures on the left and the right are agreed that those 25 per cent cuts will make David Cameron's government fantastically unpopular.

The coalition hasn't even announced, let alone implemented, the key cuts, but already this week it has attracted the ire of the trade unions, the police and the defence establishment. No wonder one Liberal Democrat cabinet minister has predicted that support for his party will fall to 5 per cent and the Tories to 25 per cent.

Cowley's analysis is an antidote to Labour complacency, but fails to factor in the historically extraordinary cuts we're about to see.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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