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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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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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