Labour begins the year ahead but Cameron is still preferred to Miliband

First poll of the year gives Labour a 12-point lead but Cameron is eight points ahead as "the best prime minister".

If, as Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics then two and a half years is an eternity. But that hasn't stopped commentators speculating about the result of the 2015 general election. In a notable piece for the Daily Telegraph just before the new year, former Tory MP and ConservativeHome executive editor Paul Goodman suggested that David Cameron should abandon any hope of winning a majority (an argument I made after Nick Clegg killed the boundary changes last August). His piece prompted a response from the energetic Conservative chairman Grant Shapps who, unsurprisingly, insisted that the race was from over and one from his ConHome colleague Tim Montgomerie, who argued that a Conservative majority, while unlikely, remained possible.

The first YouGov poll of the year offers evidence to support both arguments. Labour is on 43 per cent, 12 points ahead of the Conservatives (compared to a lead of just two at the start of 2012), a lead that, on a uniform swing, would see Ed Miliband enter Downing Street with a majority of 116 seats.

Poll leads, of course, can come and go. In February 1981, Michael Foot led Margaret Thatcher by 16 points. Yet aided by the "Falklands bounce" and the splintering of the centre-left vote, the Conservatives went on to win a majority of 144 seats in 1983. But even if the Tories chip away at Labour's lead in advance of the next election (as they surely will), it's hard to see them remaining the single largest party, let alone winning a majority. The Lib Dems' veto of the boundary changes means that Labour needs a lead of just one point on a uniform swing to win a majority; the Tories, by contrast, require one of seven. Since fewer people tend to vote in Labour constituencies, the party is able to win more seats with the same number of votes.

In the face of these daunting odds, one of the principal reasons why the Tories remain optimistic about their chances is David Cameron's consistent lead over Ed Miliband as the best prime minister. While Cameron's lead has narrowed since a year ago, when it stood at 24 points (41-17), he retains an eight-point advantage (33-25. Nick Clegg is on five per cent with "don't know" leading on 38 per cent). In the wake of his bravura conference speech, Miliband reduced Cameron's lead to four (31-27) but the gap soon widened again.

But this is a parliamentary system, you say, why should we care? The answer is that personal ratings are frequently a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. Labour often led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance (sometimes by as much as 24 points), but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. A more recent example is the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which saw Alex Salmond ranked above Iain Gray even as Labour led in the polls. The final result, of course, was an SNP majority.

In an attempt to exploit Cameron's advantage over Miliband, the Tories intend to run a highly presidential campaign, asking the voters: do you want David Cameron or Ed Miliband as your prime minister? It's hard to see this overriding factors such as the collapse in the Lib Dem vote (which will gift Labour victory in scores of Tory-Labour marginals) but it is in Cameron, who remains more popular than his party, that Tory hopes continue to reside.

Thirty three per cent of voters believe David Cameron would make the best prime minister, compared to 25 per cent for Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser