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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

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details:

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear