Addressing the Conservative Party conference in 2016, a then seemingly unassailable Theresa May revived one of her most celebrated lines to attack Jeremy Corbyn.
As Tory party chairman some 14 years earlier, she had used her conference speech to warn activists that they were seen as “the nasty party” by the country. In her first speech as Prime Minister, however, she applied the label to Labour.
“Fighting among themselves, abusing their own MPs, threatening to end their careers, tolerating anti-Semitism and supporting voices of hate,” she said. “You know what some people call them: the nasty party.”
The Theresa May of late 2018 bears little resemblance to that of two years ago but she can take some heart from new polling by ComRes for the Jewish News, which, among other striking findings, reveals that almost as many people now think Labour are “the nasty party” despite its anti-Tory coinage.
Thirty one per cent of the 2,002 British adults surveyed agreed that the term best applied to Labour, compared to 34 per cent for the Tories. Both were beaten, as they frequently are in polling under their current leaders, by ‘don’t know’ at 35 per cent, however.
Other findings make equally grim reading for the Labour leadership. 50 per cent agree that Labour is “not doing enough to tackle anti-Semitism within its ranks” against 19 per cent who believe it is. Similarly, 45 per cent believe that Corbyn is “either unwilling or unable to act decisively against anti-Semitism in his party”, compared with 27 per cent who say he is “the target of a concerted smear campaign by his political opponents to try to discredit him over anti-Semitism”.
Set against his predecessors on the issue of “decency”, Corbyn also fares badly. Twice as many respondents – 48 per cent – believe Labour was a “more decent party” under Gordon Brown than Corbyn, with 24 per cent saying the reverse
What do these numbers mean? Opinion is split within Labour – and indeed within the Jewish community – as to whether anti-Semitism will damage the party electorally. Some believe that the row is already factored in as far as Corbyn’s electoral prospects go, and that beyond areas in North London and Greater Manchester where the party has already lost ground (or in the case of Tory-held marginals like Finchley and Golders Green, failed to gain it), there is no electoral price to pay.
Others, especially Corbynsceptic MPs, are more pessimistic. They believe the interminable negative publicity could prevent Labour from getting over the line at the next election, and that it can only increase the number of voters who do not think their leader is fit to be prime minister.
“The drip-drip-drip [of bad headlines] is definitely having an effect,” one gloomy frontbencher, a regular canvasser in a north-west marginal, told me at the height of the controversy during the summer. “People are citing it as a reason why they won’t vote for us.” For this camp, the poll findings on decency and the “nasty party” will sound alarm bells.
In either case, though, it is clear from the findings that the scandal has cut through and inflicted real damage to Labour’s brand, whatever the lack of significant movement in voter intention polls might say. Can it be repaired? The numbers offer some hope: 40 per cent do not think the party is institutionally racist, compared to 28 per cent who do.
For those in the Parliamentary Labour Party who are considering quitting over anti-Semitism – as Frank Field did last month – there is also pause for thought. Only 25 per cent think those Labour MPs “who are uncomfortable at Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to tackle anti-Semitism” should resign, while 44 per cent said they should “remain in the party and try to effect change from within”.
But on the eve of a conference where the left’s internal hegemony will be on full display, the million-dollar question is how they might do it. Bluntly, it does not look as if they have an answer.