A grim poll for the Tories

Labour lead up to eight points as Tory support falls to just 33 per cent in new Populus poll.

David Cameron is said by some to have emerged almost unscathed from the Liam Fox imbroglio and last week's terrible unemployment figures. But the latest monthly Populus/Times poll (£), the first to be conducted since Fox's resignation, makes grim reading for the Prime Minister. Labour's advantage over the Conservatives is up from four points to eight points, the party's largest lead in a Populus poll since the election-that-never-was in 2007. By contrast, the Tories' share of the vote is down to just 33 per cent, their worst Populus figure in this parliament. Regardless of whether you take into account the likely effect of the boundary changes, George Osborne wouldn't get the majority he craves on these figures. And there's little to cheer the Lib Dems, who are down four points to just 8 per cent, their lowest figure since Populus started polling for the Times in 2003.

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Latest poll (Populus/Times) Labour majority of 94 (uniform swing).

There is also some evidence that Fox's resignation has damaged the Tories' reputation. The number saying that they are "honest and principled" has dropped from 36 per cent in September to 30 per cent this month, while the proportion saying that they are "competent and capable" has fallen from 48 per cent last month to 42 per cent now.

However, it isn't all bad news for the Tories. Cameron and George Osborne are still rated as a better economic team than Ed Miliband and Ed Balls (a remarkable political achievement given that the economy hasn't grown for nine months), although their lead has fallen from 18 per cent in June to 13 per cent in September. The full data tables aren't available yet but the Times reports: "This drop is particularly pronounced among women, where the lead fell from 20 per cent to 11 per cent over the same period, and from 28 per cent to 9 per cent among skilled manual workers (C2s)."

New Statesman Poll of Polls

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Labour majority of 50 (uniform swing).

Yet so long as the Conservatives retain their lead on the economy and Cameron is rated as a better leader than Miliband, the Tories will be confident of clawing back Labour's lead. As I always point out, personal approval ratings are often a better long-term indicator of the next election result than voting intentions. Labour frequently led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance, but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. As the economy enters a new and dangerous phase, it will be worth watching to see whether these ratings begin to swing in Miliband's favour.

P.S. Conversely, the latest YouGov poll puts Labour's lead at just three points. Miliband's party is on 40 per cent, the Tories are on 37 per cent, and the Lib Dems are on 9 per cent.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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