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  1. Politics
20 November 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:44pm

Labour has polled at a record low — but no one knows what that would mean at an election

By Stephen Bush

Causing a stir: a YouGov poll for the Times showing Labour in fourth place, on 18 per cent of the vote behind the Conservatives (24 per cent), the Brexit Party (23 per cent), and the Liberal Democrats (20 per cent of the vote). 

That the poll shows Labour equalling their lowest ever poll performance since polling began will cause a great deal of comment, but it is as ever just one poll. The real significance of it is that it follows the pattern of all of the polls since the local and European elections: four parties scrapping it out for around a quarter of the vote and the Greens in a solid fourth place with eight to ten per cent.

What would that mean if repeated at a general election? No one really knows. Hook that into our antiquated electoral system and it could mean Labour winning 600 seats or zero. That downside risk will add to the gloomy mood around the Labour Party, which is the subject of my cover story in this week’s NS

As I explain, the major source of consolation in Labour circles is that the looming advent of Boris Johnson will heighten the contrast between them and the Conservatives, making it harder for voters flirting with the Liberal Democrats or the Greens to feel they can go through with it at the election. Of course, if the polls are right, it might be that it is a Labour vote rather than a Liberal Democrat one that risks splitting the vote and letting the Conservatives in.

But the ace in both big parties’ hole is this: the consistent story of the polls is that, as they stand, there is a perfectly credible chance that whoever wins the Liberal Democrat leadership is going to become prime minister. Have either Jo Swinson or Ed Davey received anything like the level of scrutiny or indeed of coverage that we might expect from that? Hell no. They are an afterthought in much of the media, most importantly on broadcast, the media arena where elections are fought and won. 

That lack of scrutiny annoys both Conservative and Labour MPs. But the lack of attention paid to the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party reinforces an argument they may both need at the next election: that experiments with the minor parties are all well and good in second order contests but at general elections, the only choice that really matters is between red and blue. 

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