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.