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Jeremy Corbyn's surge: is Labour's poll boost real?

Could Labour spring a surprise after all?

Are Labour on the verge of something big? YouGov’s final seat projection puts them on 269 seats, gaining just 37 seats on 2015, but crucially, more than enough gains for the parties of the centre and left to shut out the parties of the right – the Conservatives would have 302 seats, comfortably the largest party but not big enough for the DUP and the UUP to get them out of trouble. (I explain the arithmetic of a hung parliament here.)

Although YouGov are comfortably providing the sunniest picture for Labour supporters, the picture is clear across all the pollsters – Labour are surging across the polls. Although there are two very distinct groups as far as the polling companies are concerned – ICM, IpsosMori, ComRes and ORB are showing large Conservative leads, YouGov, Opinium and Survation are showing small ones – they are actually showing a very similar picture.

What they’re showing is this: Theresa May has taken a big chunk out of the Ukip vote, and a small but significant slice of the Liberal Democrat vote. That’s been the pattern since the start of the campaign. What’s happened is that her campaign has alienated a group of Labour voters who dislike Jeremy Corbyn and were planning on voting for May, who had presented herself as a different type of Conservative. Now as far as that group of voters is concerned, May has revealed herself to be a thoroughly typical Conservative, and that group is now back to voting for Labour. That’s what’s got the Conservatives into the mid-40s across the polls.

As for Labour, they’ve held onto the bulk of their 2015 voters, and hoovered up a large chunk of the Liberal Democrat vote, gobbled up the Green vote and taken a small but significant slice of the Ukip votes.

But the reports from the campaigns and most activists on the ground are much more favourable to the Conservatives. I’ve been calling round and travelling the country and here are some thoughts on what’s really going on.

Campaigners aren’t picking up a surge – except they are

I – and a number of other journalists – have been ringing around talking to candidates and staffers in search of Labour’s poll surge and no-one seems to have detected it.

I don’t want to critique the methods other people have used when calling round as, obviously, I wasn’t there, but I’ve noticed that speaking to Labour MPs and organisers, I got a very different answer to the question “Any sign of a surge?” to “How do you think it’s going?” When I asked people the first, they tended to say “No”, but when I asked candidates and field organisers what they were seeing, they tended to say that the pattern was “unchanged” or “neck-and-neck”.

But the crucial thing is that we saw in the local elections, the polls, and indeed in the handful of local council by-elections since then that the Conservatives have significantly increased their vote share on the back of the Ukip vote. That the pattern hasn’t changed that much for Labour does suggest some kind of vote increase.

The pattern was clearer when I spoke to organisers, who obviously, unlike candidates, are slightly more detatched from the process. One Labour organiser said that they had “gobbled up the Green vote like Pac-Man”. Several of their Conservative counterparts are predicting that at a local level, they and Labour will have a combined vote share in excess of 80 per cent of the vote. They are still expecting to win with an increased majority but for Labour to also gain votes.

And on both sides, they report a similar process to that seen by the polls - an increase in the firmness of the Labour vote, a slight fall in the Tory vote, and the smaller parties being almost wholly devoured by the big two. 

This feels very similar to 2015. A lot of Labour candidates hit their “win number” – that is, the number of votes their Conservative opponents got in 2010, plus one – but lost, as the Conservatives also increased their vote share.

Neither high command believes there is a surge

Before the last election, I reported on a late burst of panic among Labour’s field organisers, whose promise began to fall unexpectedly in the last days. On the Conservative side, they moved their heavyweights into Liberal Democrat seats as they realised how deadly the threat of a Labour-SNP coalition was to Liberal Democrat MPs.

Labour’s field organisers are not sounding more cheerful and the Conservatives, as Chris Cook’s excellent analysis for the BBC shows, have not moved their attacking line back (or indeed started moving their defensive line).

So this surge has not been noticed by either side’s campaign teams, which you’d expect.

You wouldn’t expect campaigners to pick up all of the surge

There is a massive, massive “but” here. Best practice for the ideal field campaign is to go into the final weeks knowing exactly where and who your voters are, and to winnow them down so that on election day, you are only turning out your own voters. Because of the snap election, most have been canvassing everyone who has voted in any of the previous five local elections: which includes both the referendum, when youth turnout spiked, and the general election, when it very much did not.

If Jeremy Corbyn has energised a big tranche of previous non-voters or supporters of Ukip, you wouldn’t necessarily expect many campaigns to have picked up on that. Younger voters also tend to be harder to canvass as they live in flats with entryphones, are more likely to work unsociable hours or to be out for social reasons. Several organisers have estimated that their canvass returns tend to be about a decade older than the demographics of the seat for this reason.  They’re less likely to have postal votes, which are heavily rumoured to be uniformly terrible for Labour outside of the big cities.

So if the more favourable polls for Labour are right, the campaigns could easily have missed them. And don’t forget that Labour’s internal expectation was that they would end up with between 255 to 280 seats on election night. Instead, they ended up with 232.  

I don’t buy that this would have happened under any other Labour leader

Labour are doing a very good job of gobbling up the anti-system vote, whether they be Green voters, Liberal Democrat voters or Ukip voters. A number of organisers have reported seeing the combination “S10, U15, L17” – that is, Liberal Democrat 2010, Ukip 2015, Labour 2017 in their returns.

There is a good chunk of what used to be the Liberal Democrat vote that went to Ukip in 2015 that has been voting to give the establishment a bit of a kick, and has found Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour a congenial home.

It doesn’t feel likely to me that these voters would have found any of the alternatives to Corbyn a natural home, who either worked as Cabinet ministers (Yvettte Cooper), for Cabinet ministers (Liz Kendall and Owen Smith), or both (Andy Burnham). This surge may be of limited electoral use, but I don’t buy that it would have happened under a different leader.

This isn’t what the local elections might suggest, but I don’t think that matters

No opposition has ever got a higher share of the vote in the general election than it has in the local election before. Not in 1979, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010 or 2015, when the opposition parties underhit their local performance of a year prior by varying degrees, and not in 1983, 1987 or 1992 when the elections were held in the same year but not on the same day as the local elections.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to look at Labour’s very bad set of local election results – the party would have got 27 per cent of the vote had the whole country voted in May 2017 – listen to the almost universally negative noises coming from most of the party’s organisers, and conclude that the polls are wrong. This is a perfectly viable theory: it might be proved incorrect, but it’s not stupid.

However, I don’t buy it myself. Why? Well, because what’s also very clear is that the Liberal Democrats have collapsed since the local elections. They also had a very bad night, and it punched their biggest bruise: the fear among voters that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a wasted one.

Local Liberal Democrats have gone from being optimistic to deeply pessimistic about this election. Labour voters who might have been tempted by the Liberal Democrats’ more robust Brexit stance have looked at the numbers and concluded that the Liberal Democrats can’t stop Brexit, and so they might as well vote for Labour. 

That’s a big, big difference between 1983 and 1987 and today. Then, the local elections were held before the general election and made it look as if the SDP/Liberal Alliance were a viable option, boosting their vote share. Now the local elections have done the reverse.

I would now be more surprised if this election held to historical type than if Labour exceeded their 27 per cent local election performance.

The local elections probably still tell us something about who and where these voters are

The really useful thing about local elections – as well as setting who runs a series of important services – is that because they are held at a ward level, we get a better idea of who is voting for the various parties than we do from a general election.

Both the 2017 and the 2016 local elections have given us a pretty good understanding of who the average Labour voter under Corbyn is. It’s pretty similar to the average Labour voter under Ed Miliband: young, living in a big city, or from a population with a high number of graduates, ethnic minorities or both.

The evidence in the 2016 locals and in the polls now is that Corbyn is doing better with these voters than Ed Miliband was. The bad news is he is doing worse with voters who are older, living in a small town or living somewhere with very few graduates or ethnic minorities.

The difficulty is that these voters live together

The very bad news is that – and this is heavily anecdotal – this looks to be an even less useful vote share than Ed Miliband got. Basically, the Labour people who are sounding cheery – there are some – tend to be campaigning in big cities or university towns. There is some hope that the party might surprise people in Battersea, for instance, and Oxford East, where they expected a tough fight as the popular local MP Andrew Smith has stood down, now looks like a solid hold for the party.

But when you talk to people in suburban constituencies or small towns, they start to sound very, very miserable indeed.

On referendum night I said that voting for Remain was a better guide to city status than a cathedral. Most of Britain’s great cities – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Bristol, Glasgow and Newcastle – all voted to Remain. Its smaller cities and towns opted, in the main, to Leave.

Labour’s surge may be similarly geographically limited.  

Jeremy Corbyn will beat Ed Miliband in vote share, but will end up with fewer seats

My strong expectation from travelling the country and talking to campaigners is that Jeremy Corbyn will beat Ed Miliband’s vote share in 2015 and may even match Tony Blair’s in 2005. But I also think that these extra voters are insufficiently distributed thanks to first past the post, and that the party will lose significant numbers of seats.

This is great if politics is an argument in the pub. But the blunt truth is that Labour would swap Ed Miliband’s 31 per cent for Gordon Brown’s 28 per cent in a heartbeat, as that 28 per cent delivered 40 Scottish Labour MPs and a hung parliament.

It feels to me that once again, Labour will have gained voters while moving further away from office. 

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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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.