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Could the polls be underestimating Jeremy Corbyn?

The polls could be wrong again. But that may be bad news for Labour. 

The pollster changes, but the result remains the same: Labour miles off the pace in the polls. But that the polls got it wrong in the 2015 election means some Labour supporters are holding out hope for a repeat. Are they right to do so?
As far as the general problems of polling are concerned: the Brexit referendum was a failure of punditry not of polling. The polls showed a dead heat but they were written up as pointing strongly towards a Remain vote. In the United States, the polls actually got the nationwide picture right but Donald Trump managed to win because his vote was well-distributed to benefit under the rules of the American electoral system. 

They have had big problems picking up the scale of the victories in the French primaries, in which both Benoît Hamon and François Fillon overperformed their final polls. That may mean that the French polls are off a bit. Equally, both those candidates were enjoying a surge in support, which the polls did detect. If Jean-Luc Mélenchon continues to soar in the polls, getting 22 per cent, 23 per cent and then gets 25 per cent on the day itself, are the polls wrong? Not really.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the polls in Britain can’t be wrong. But when they are, they tend not to match the more important information: that is, the elections going on in the country as a whole. Throughout the last parliament, Ed Miliband did significantly worse at local elections and parliamentary by-elections than his poll rating suggested – he went on to lose. Under Jeremy Corbyn, up until the referendum, he did about as well as you’d expect according to the polls – that is, a little bit worse than Ed Miliband.

Then a combination of forces hit Labour’s vote share: the failed attempt to remove Jeremy Corbyn knocked Labour from 29-31 per cent to 25-27  per cent. The popularity of the new Conservative leader, Theresa May, increased their vote share into the high 40s, a force that was aided by the post-referendum collapse of Ukip.

Both Theresa May’s popularity and the effects of the coup have diminished somewhat, but the collapse of Ukip continues to benefit the Tories, while the Liberal Democrats have enjoyed a post-referendum revival.

The parliamentary by-elections and council elections all suggest that the picture we’re seeing in the polls are broadly accurate, with one minor caveat: the Liberal Democrats are doing better than we’d expect, at the expense of both parties. However, the Conservatives have gained former Ukip votes to make up for what they’ve lost to the Liberal Democrats – Labour has not regained the bulk of its “Labour 2005, Ukip 2015” vote but is losing its “Liberal Democrat 2010, Labour 2015” vote.

My instinct is what is happening is what usually happens to the Liberal Democrats in opposition – people forget about them until election time, when they decide that they aren’t such a bad option after all. (Or, at least, when they decide that they are better than the other options available.)

My strong feeling is that this will hold at the next election and while it will hurt both parties, the effect will be more noticeable on Labour’s vote share. But one very important thing to watch out for in terms of the next election is how the Liberal Democrats do across the country on 4 May.

There are a couple of other things to watch out for. As with Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership ratings are below that of his party’s. My expectation is that during a general election campaign, those two numbers will start to converge – some Labour voters will warm to him as he is the Labour leader, while some Labour voters will go off Labour as the party is led by Corbyn. If Labour goes into the short campaign in 2020 on 22 per cent and with its leader on 13 per cent, I expect they’ll end up polling 19 per cent.

There is one major caveat, however: the debates. The success of Jean-Luc Mélenchon is reminding us of something that Nick Clegg demonstrated in 2010: a good debate performance can get you a hell of a lot. Mélenchon has fewer ideas than Benoît Hamon, the Socialist party candidate and his rival on the left, but gave a much better performance than him, allowing him to cohere much of the left vote under his banner.

How Corbyn performs in the 2020 debates could transform Labour’s prospects. That he regularly gets the best of May at Prime Minister’s Questions, means that his debate chances aren’t bad. But a poor performance from him – or a strong one from Caroline Lucas or Tim Farron – could spell further disaster. 

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

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.