Labour's poll lead is on the up again

As Miliband's energy price freeze continues to dominate debate, the party's lead has risen significantly, with a nine-point advantage today.

Confronted by the popularity of Ed Miliband's proposed energy price freeze, the Tories have comforted themselves with polls showing little or no change in Labour's lead. As Daniel Finkelstein wrote last week in the Times, "A graph of Labour’s lead over the Conservatives shows that it has been steadily, if slowly, declining since the beginning of the year and continues to decline. Mr Miliband’s intervention hasn’t altered this." The Tories' hope is that while the public overwhelmingly support the price freeze (with 80% of all respondents and 69% of Conservative voters backing it in today's ComRes poll), few will actually change their vote as a result. 

But five weeks on from Miliband's speech, a period in which the policy has dominated debate, there is increasing evidence that Labour's position has improved. After polls earlier this month showing the party as few as four points ahead, the five most recent YouGov surveys have put its lead at between six and nine points (today's has Labour on 40% and the Tories on 31%), with its vote share also rising by several points. 

As ever, one can never say for certain what lies behind voting intentions, but Labour's success in shifting the debate away from the deficit and GDP (where it trails the Tories) and towards living standards (where it leads) is likely to be a factor. The Conservatives have been wary of trumpeting the rise in growth too loudly for fear of appearing indifferent to falling wages (the promised "blitzkrieg" against Labour's economic record failed to materialise), while also remaining conscious of the need to avoid, in Nick Clegg's words, playing on Miliband's "side of the course". 

Some Tories will be consoled by the finding that while 80% support Miliband's proposed price freeze, only 41% believe he will "deliver on his promise". But as one Labour strategist pointed out to me, this is greater than the party's vote share (which stands at 38% in ComRes) and in an age of great scepticism about politicians' ability to deliver their policies, 41% is not to be sniffed at. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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