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17 February 2016

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. 

By George Eaton

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.

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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. 

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming