What the polls do and don’t tell us about the battle between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May

Despatches from a conflict that will not be repeated.

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The latest YouGov poll has an arresting result: “Don’t Know” has pulled ahead of Theresa May in the “who would be the best Prime Minister” stakes, with 36 per cent of people opting for a shrug instead of May (on 35 per cent) or Jeremy Corbyn (on 29 per cent).

There is a lot to say here, not least what it means for the Liberal Democrats, who surely ought to be thriving in the present circumstances, but aren’t. (36 per cent of people say they don't know who the best Prime Minister is, yet the Liberal Democrats are taking just 11 per cent of the vote from this group, which is one reason why their poll figure is stuck at just six per cent.) But it’s also good peg for something I’ve wanted to talk about for a while, which is what I think the polls at the moment usefully tell us, and what they don't.

The first thing I think they don't do is provide any particularly useful predictive information about the next election. Partly because most of the polls were wrong and even the pollster which got it right, Survation, hasn't, in my view, convincingly solved the secular problems of voting intention. But equally importantly, because the extreme likelihood is that there will be no May-Corbyn rematch. The Conservative Party wants rid of Theresa May before the next election. While it is more likely than not in my view that Corbyn will lead Labour into the next election, there is also a non-trivial possibility that he will step down voluntarily before then.

There is also a possibility that May will end up leading the Tories into another election, but if that happens, the political position of the Conservatives will have reached a point where all of the possible candidates to replace her think they are better off waiting it out and trying their chances in opposition, or they will have tumbled into an election unexpectedly. That is to say, even in the highly unlikely scenario where May and Corbyn do electoral battle again, the political situation will be so different from the present as to render the question now redundant.

What these polls tell us is the size of the electoral bounty available to either party if they can either increase the number of people who see their candidate as the best available Prime Minister or they can change their candidate to someone voters find more congenial. 27 per cent of Labour voters answer “don't know” when asked to pick which of May or Corbyn would be a better Prime Minister, while 12 per cent of Conservatives say the same. To put that in perspective, if either Labour or the Liberal Democrats were able to hoover up that “voting Tory, not sure about May” vote, the Conservatives would be on 36 per cent not 41 per cent, which would turn Labour's 42 per cent from “barely enough to scrape into a weak coalition” to majority territory even if that vote all went to the Liberal Democrats, let alone if it ended up going directly to Labour. On the Labour side, if the Conservatives and/or the Liberal Democrats succeeded in peeling away their “vote Labour, not sure about Corbyn” flank, Labour would be on 31 per cent of the vote, which would, again, go from a continuation of the current deadlock to a fairly emphatic victory for the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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