What lies behind Labour's shrinking poll lead?

Over the last week, the party's lead has halved from 14 points to seven. With politics as normal suspended, the Tories may have benefited from a Thatcher effect.

During last week's Commons tribute to Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative MP Conor Burns, a close confidante of the former prime minister, recalled showing her a poll last November with the Tories nine points behind. Thatcher, he revealed, replied, "That's not far enough behind at this stage", explaining that "she took a view that to do things that were right did entail unpopularity until people saw that what you were doing was working."

Thatcher, then, would be alarmed by the latest polls, which show Labour's lead has fallen to its lowest level for months. The YouGov daily tracker puts the party on seven points, down from eight the previous day (and a peak of 14 last Thursday) and the lowest Labour lead since David Cameron's EU speech in January. Yesterday's Guardian/ICM survey made similarly grim reading for Team Miliband, with Labour's lead down to six (from eight last month) and Miliband's net approval rating down to -23, his worst since becoming leader.

It could, of course, be normal sample variation but it's plausible that the Tories, whose YouGov vote share has risen five points to 33 per cent since last week, have benefited from a Thatcher effect. Polls have shown that most voters continue to regard her (if not all of her policies) fondly and, with politics as normal suspended, David Cameron has enjoyed largely free rein to hail her conservative values. Labour, meanwhile, has presented a divided face to the country as Tony Blair's piece in the centenary edition of the NS has been followed by a series of other critical interventions from party grandees. Voters, as pollsters regularly attest, don't like divided parties, the reason why John Prescott told Monday night's PLP meeting that it was "crazy" for Labour to fracture just two weeks before the local elections. 

Thatcher, incidentally, may have been right about the Tories not being far enough behind (or Labour not being far enough ahead). As the data below from YouGov's Peter Kellner shows, no modern opposition has ever won without being at least 20 points ahead in mid-term. But with the right divided and the Lib Dem vote likely to collapse in Tory-Labour marginals, Miliband has some hope of defying this trend. 

Peak poll leads

Oppositions that went on to win            Oppositions that went on to lose

Lab 1959-64:     20% (June 1963)                      Lab 1979-83:    13% (Jan 1981)
Con 1966-70: 28% (May 1968)                           Lab 1983-87:    7% (June 1986)
Lab 1970-74: 22% (July 1971)                           Lab 1987-92:    23% (March 1990)
Con 1974-79:    25% (Nov 1976)                        Con 1997-2001: 8% (Sept 2000)
Lab 1992-97:     40% (Dec 1994)                        Con 2001-2005: 5% (Jan 2004)
Con 2005-10:    26% (May 2008)

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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