Libya polls show that British public is divided

YouGov poll shows 45 per cent of people supporting action in Libya, while ComRes finds 43 per cent o

The first polls gauging British public support for military action have come out – and they show contradictory results.

A YouGov poll for the Sun shows 45 per cent of people supporting action by Britain, the US and France, and 36 per cent stating that it is wrong.

However, a ComRes/ITN poll shows almost exactly the opposite, with 35 per cent in favour of action and 43 per cent opposed to it.

Clearly, this shows that we mustn't be too hasty about declaring that the public is opposed to or in favour of the war, as many news outlets have been doing this morning.

Discussing the ComRes poll, John Rentoul declares that "it is not even as well supported by the British public as the Iraq invasion", citing a Guardian/ICM poll which showed 54 per cent support for Britain's role in the invasion of Iraq in the days after it started.

While it is true that all pollsters showed a boost in support for the 2003 Iraq war after it actually began, the comparison is slightly disingenuous, given the unique circumstances. Drilling down into the figures from Ipsos MORI (taken before the war started) shows that this support was highly conditional – while 74 per cent would support war with proof of WMDs and a UN resolution, just 26 per cent would support it without either of these two things.

It's also relevant that support for the Iraq war (and for Afghanistan) dropped substantially as they dragged on. Over at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza suggests that the first Gulf war might be a better comparison, as public support started and stayed high:

The secret to that political success? The war was short – military actions lasted less than a month – and the US was widely perceived to be at the head of a broad international coalition that soundly defeated Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein . . .

Given that history, it's no surprise that President Obama is focusing almost entirely on the planned brevity of the US's military involvement and the near-unanimity of the international community in support of the actions taken against Libya.

This would certainly be a better model for this action – though it's worth noting that neither of today's polls shows public support even approaching the levels seen in 1991, when 80 per cent of the British public thought military action was right.

All today's polls tell us is that the public is still unsure: there is no widespread opposition to it, but nor is there a swell of support.

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