Is this his moment? Photo: Getty
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Have Labour pulled ahead? It's complicated

The first post-debate poll has good news for Labour. But don't get too excited. 

Labour are in good spirits this morning after the first post-debate poll showed the party taking a four-point lead, and putting the party a point ahead in our rolling poll.

It’s worth remembering that it’s only one poll. David Cameron will surely not be so underwhelming in the next debate, this Thursday on ITV – in the Sunday Times, Tim Shipman and James Lyons report that the Prime Minister is studying the performance of Hilary Clinton and Mitt Romney in their multi-candidate debates to learn what to do and not do.

Remember too – spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t yet watched Coalition, the new drama about the last election – that in the first post-debate polling last time, the Liberal Democrats surged to 30 per cent in the polls, only to end up on 23 per cent on the day itself.

And it’s worth noting that YouGov seem more vulnerable than other pollsters to differential response rates – they picked up a bigger swing towards Yes in the last days of that campaign, detected a mini-Tory bounce after David Cameron’s conference speech, and are now showing a debate boost for Ed Miliband. Beneath the headline figures, government approval is basically unchanged, at minus 11 percent compared to minus 12 per cent before the debates. But the Labour leader’s ratings on general approval and economic competence are greatly improved.

On the other hand, Labour’s campaign appears to be finding some rhythm while the Conservatives are beginning to get the jitters. Tory MPs were being told last year that they would overhaul Labour in January, then February, then the Easter Weekend.  Labour’s “40 in 40” plan – each day from now until polling day will be defined by a different policy – should keep everyone on the same hymn sheet while giving the party’s big beasts enough moments in the sun to keep everyone happy.

So what we do know is that Miliband’s performance in the debates has put a spring in the step of his activists and parliamentary candidates. It’s not yet clear whether that feelgood factor has spread any further than that.

Update 30/03/15: The latest ComRes poll for the Daily Mail has the Conservatives ahead by four points on 36 per cent to 32 per cent. I wouldn't read any more into it than the YouGov poll showing a Labour lead.

 

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

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.