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.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia