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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.

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How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters. With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry.

But with migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.