Under Ed Miliband, the Labour Party’s private polling – particularly surveys that reflected poorly on the leader – was restricted to a small circle of intimates who worried about it intensely in private and dismissed it in public. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the distrust of polling is sincere. The Labour leader has never liked market research or focus groups, and his aversion to both was only bolstered by the general election campaign in 2017, not least because the party’s own pollster, BMG Research, called the result wrong.
As a consequence, several recent opinion polls that put the Tories ahead of Labour don’t particularly worry Corbyn or his inner circle, though there are jitters in the shadow cabinet and wider movement. Labour’s better-than-expected election result last June has ensured that any discussions about whether the leader could and should be doing better are conducted in hushed voices among friends.
One MP complained to me that he felt “suffocated” by the need to continually refer back to the unexpected result. That sense of being quietly smothered extends well beyond the Corbynite vs Corbyn-sceptic battle. The biggest shift is among the party’s pro-Europeans, who argued before the general election that Corbyn’s embrace of Brexit left their seats vulnerable to a Lib Dem surge (which never came).
Now, though, Labour MPs in heavily pro-Remain territory have the largest majorities, while those in areas that support Leave have the smallest. The new reality of the electoral map makes it harder for Labour’s single market advocates to get a hearing.
Those at the top of the party believe that British politics has entered a period of polarisation, in which neither of the main parties can expect to take a decisive lead. They also believe that this accounts for the failure of the Liberal Democrats to break out of single digits. There is a surprising amount of sympathy for that thesis among Westminster’s remaining Lib Dems. “When both big parties are feared,” one senior figure observed to me recently, “who’ll risk a vote on us?”
To Labour’s remaining Corbynsceptics, this is all special pleading. To them, the polls prove what the election did: that against Jeremy Corbyn, even a Conservative Party that acts as if it wants to lose still can’t quite manage it. The memory of the 1992 general election, when Neil Kinnock lost to John Major, is uppermost in these MPs’ minds. “In 1987, we had a good result that put us on course for power,” one former cabinet minister told me. “But we didn’t change and the Tories did, and we lost the 1992 election – it’s starting to feel that way again.”
That view is also shared by many Tories, which is why there is a spring in their step. One of the few things that unites most Conservatives is the belief that, at some point before the next election, Theresa May will be replaced by a more voter-friendly leader. In turn, Labour’s inability to build a convincing lead even against a prime minister as weak as May means a better candidate can and will win in 2022. (Most also think this parliament will last the full five-year term.)
There is one notable exception to the improvement in the Tory morale: MPs with seats in the capital. London’s remaining 21 Conservatives fit into three groups. The first are those who hold ministerial office and are therefore forced to sound supportive of the government in public, such as the Cities of London and Westminster MP, Mark Field. The second are those whose ideological commitment to a hard Brexit (against London’s economic interests and cultural preferences) makes them willing to risk losing their seats, such as Theresa Villiers, whose wafer-thin majority of 353 in Chipping Barnet has not dulled her Eurosceptic zeal. The third and largest group, however, are rebellious, depressed and fearful both about holding their seats and the prospects for Tory councillors in the local elections on 3 May. A bad result will make them even more restive.
Labour is preparing for the local elections by concentrating on voters rather than managing the expectations of journalists and backbench MPs. Damian McBride, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry’s spinner, looked relaxed when he made a rare appearance at a meeting for parliamentary advisers in early February. “The reason why Damian’s smiling is he knows that foreign affairs doesn’t feature in council elections,” Corbyn’s policy chief, Andrew Fisher, told assembled staff.
While McBride might have had a week off from filling the media grid, the rest of the domestic shadow ministerial teams were sent away with instructions to devise a week’s worth of news stories ready for the local contests. Yet Corbyn’s office has done little work to lay the ground for what a “good night” for Labour would be in May.
The local elections take place predominantly in England’s great cities, where Corbyn’s preferred brand of metropolitan leftism is popular. The challenge for Labour is that the party also did well in the cities when these seats were last contested under Ed Miliband in 2014. Corbynism could gift eye-watering majorities to sitting Labour councillors in inner London – and could wipe out the remaining islands of blue or yellow in London’s red sea – without making actual gains, particularly if the collapse of Ukip benefits the Conservatives.
The ones to watch are the Liberal Democrats. If they do better than expected, that will give Labour’s pro-European frontbenchers licence to re-open the Brexit debate. Few in Labour expect that to happen, and fewer still expect any rethink from the top if it does. Having ignored the warnings of the Westminster village before, Corbyn has both the confidence and the internal strength to follow his gut.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist