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As the polls spell doom for Labour, do Jeremy Corbyn or his opponents have a plan?

At no point since 1945 have the party's ratings been lower in opposition. 

The government is locked in an unpopular dispute with junior doctors, the economy is slowing and the cabinet is divided over EU membership. In such circumstances, one would expect the Conservatives’ opinion-poll lead to have narrowed, if not collapsed. Instead, the gap has widened.

After losing the general election by 6.5 points, Labour is now trailing the Tories by an average of 10 and by as much as 14, according to one survey. At no point in the post-1945 era has it performed so poorly in opposition. The Conservatives now regularly achieve the 40 per cent share that many regarded as impossible without a transformation of their brand. The transformation of Labour has proved enough. 

Not all in the party anticipated such baleful ratings. Allies of Jeremy Corbyn believed that he would appeal to non-voters and Ukip supporters, to the “left behind” demographic wooed by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US presidential primaries. Even some opponents of the Labour leader expected his anti-establishment rhetoric to produce an initial poll bounce. Pat McFadden, who was sacked last month as shadow Europe minister, told me that there would be “short-term interest” because: “He’s new and thinking differently.”

Voters have registered Corbyn’s leadership but not in the way that his supporters had hoped. A ComRes survey published on 14 February found that while 93 per cent of voters had an opinion on him (an unusually high figure for a new leader of the opposition), only 21 per cent viewed him favourably.

Should anyone trust the polls after their failure in the last general election? If they were wrong then, they could be wrong again. The polls were certainly wrong in 2015 – but not in Labour’s favour. As a result of sampling errors, too few Conservative voters were surveyed. Some companies believe that they may still be underestimating Tory support.

In another respect, the polls were right. They gave the Conservatives a consistent and comfortable advantage on leadership and the economy – a position from which no party had ever lost a general election. Like a Magic Eye picture, the eventual result was merely hidden.

Were the present poll figures replicated at a general election, Labour would likely be reduced to fewer than 200 MPs for the first time since 1935. Those who would lose their seats on a uniform swing include the party’s London mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Vernon Coaker, the former shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh, the new MPs Wes Streeting and Peter Kyle, and the Corbyn supporter Cat Smith.

When the scheduled boundary changes are introduced in 2018, even more MPs will become vulnerable. Some shadow cabinet ministers fear that the party could fall to 150 seats, below the Conservatives’ postwar nadir of 165 in 1997. Other MPs, noting the velocity with which the Scottish National Party advanced and the Liberal Democrats retreated, speak of an even more apocalyptic outcome. “If this carries on, we do face electoral wipeout,” John Woodcock told me. If there is any consolation for Labour, it is that time is on its side. Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, the next general election is not expected to be held until 7 May 2020 (though MPs warn of the potential for a new Conservative leader to trigger an early contest). Yet there is no consensus on how to proceed towards this point.

Many MPs have privately concluded that Labour will make little progress while Corbyn (who remains popular among the membership) is leader. But most do not expect a challenge until 2017 and plenty believe he will survive any coup attempt. Even if Labour performs as poorly as forecast in this May’s elections, the anticipated victory of Khan in the London mayoral contest should provide a helpful distraction. In what will be the eighth month of his leadership, Corbyn will be able to plead for more time on other fronts.

The Labour leader’s allies acknowledge that after months of “fighting fires” (many of which were self-ignited, critics say), they need to move “on to the front foot”. Corbyn will soon bolster his team by hiring a new spokesperson who will work alongside his head of media, Kevin Slocombe, and the director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne. More regular lobby briefings are planned. At the Q&A session that followed his London School of Economics speech on 16 February, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described by insiders as an increasingly dominant figure, conceded: “People won’t vote for a divided party . . . We’ve got to learn some lessons about how to handle the media.”

Some MPs, however, maintain that to judge Corbyn’s project in conventional terms is to misunderstand it. Rather than winning power to change the country, his aim is merely to change the party. “If they go down to the low 200s, that’s still more than their ultra-left fringe movement has ever had,” a senior MP told me. It was according to such logic that Tony Benn hailed the 1983 general election result, in which Labour won just 27.6 per cent of the vote and 209 seats, as a “remarkable” advance by an “openly socialist” party.

These are unhappy times inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. After one recent meeting, a former shadow cabinet minister told me of his contempt for Andy Burnham and others who were “collaborating” with and “propping up” the Labour leader. Those who chose not to serve on the front bench increasingly argue that Corbyn must be given the space to succeed or fail on his own terms.

For many members, that he has made Labour an anti-austerity party is success enough. Yet there is as yet no evidence that the electorate shares this view. Though its affection for the Conservatives has little grown, it is defaulting towards them in the absence of an attractive opposition. The EU referendum, financial tumult and a new Tory leader could all change the landscape in unforeseen ways. But if there is hope for Labour, it does not lie in the polls. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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