A hard rain's gonna fall. Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Did Labour's internal polling show them behind?

Labour's official pollster has said that the party's private polling had the Tories ahead since before Christmas - but others are sceptical. 

James Morris, Labour’s official pollster, has weighed into the ongoing inquest around the poor performance both for Labour and for the polling industry. He says that Labour’s internal polling showed the party underperforming its public ratings for almost the entirety of the parliament:

From January 2011 to Spring 2013, Labour’s average vote share in the public polls rarely dropped out of the low 40s. We consistently had it around 7 points lower. While the public polls had Labour ahead until early spring of this year, in the party's internal polls cross-over came right after conference season in 2014.  A four point Labour lead in early Sept, turned into a tie in October, followed by small Tory leads; prompting the party to put reassurance on fiscal policy and immigration at the heart of the campaign launch before Christmas. This plan worked through the opening weeks of the short campaign, with Labour pulling ahead in the English marginals following Ed Miliband’s strong debate performances and the non-doms row.

Our final poll, in late April, told a different story. As focus groups showed the SNP attacks landing, we had Labour behind in the marginal seats among likely voters. A public poll in a similar set of seats at the same time showed a 3 point Labour lead.”

The article has drawn an angry response from current and former Labour staffers. They say that the internal numbers showed no such thing and that the party was just as blindsided by the defeat as everyone else. “They [James Morris’ polling company, Greenberg Quinlan Rosler] failed us and are now spinning for themselves,” was the response of one party staffer. They say that Morris is talking up his numbers – which he has yet to publish – in order to save GQR’s reputation with their private sector clients. (Remember that political polling is to polling companies what 3-for-2s are for supermarkets: it’s designed to get customers in the door, not to make money in its own right.)

Are they right? It doesn’t seem wholly likely that Labour figures were being shown polling pointing to a heavy defeat. On the night itself, Harriet Harman had to wait to go on air while a new line was devised in response to the exit poll. The party’s official spinners went quiet for half an hour before responding to the numbers, and, unofficially, howls of dismay were emanating from even the upper echelons of the party. Labour had even gone so far as to assemble a team “working flat out” on constitutional precedents and preparing briefings on an “illegitimate Cameron clinging to power”.

There is also a conflict between Morris’ remarks now and his statements while working as the party’s pollster. In one meeting with an external pollster, with Morris in attendance, a senior aide to Miliband laid into them for asking poll questions about Miliband's leadership, say they were "completely irrevelant and shoudln't be asked at this stage". Morris now says that Labour were performing seven points below their public position in 2011. But in the same year, Morris briefed the party’s parliamentarians on the electoral strategy – to win with a combination of Labour loyalists from 2010 and Liberal Democrat defectors, the so-called “35 per cent strategy”. He argued then that a 2010 performance would ensure a 2005-style share of the vote – 35.7 per cent – despite private polls that would have been showing the party on just 33 per cent. 

Two days before Labour’s defeat I reported a growing mood of worry within that party. Multiple sources were all suggesting the same thing: a one-point swing to Labour. In the end, that’s exactly what materialised – but to make matters worse, there was also a swing towards the Conservatives, turning what would have been a handful of gains into a series of painful losses.

But that unease was largely emanating from the party’s field staff, who were in charge of knocking on doors and collecting data. The picture from headquarters was very different, with staff sent not to bolster Labour’s most vulnerable seats, but out in some of its most ambitious remaining targets. There was worry at the centre, but that was about the survival of Ed Miliband should Labour end up with 270 seats, not the crushing defeat that happened.

That said, there is some evidence that Labour was aware not all was well, with the target seat list being pruned from 106 to 61 well before polling day. The Labour leadership under Miliband did show a remarkable capacity for self-delusion, taking years to attempt to address the Labour leader’s image problem. It's very easy to see how Team Miliband could have been in denial about the party’s dire internal numbers. Unless Labour elect to publish the full data – which is highly unlikely – we will never know for certain.

 

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.