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Unnoticed and unreported, Jeremy Corbyn is surging in the polls

Labour's vote share is increasing as the election approaches. 

One of the more interesting trends since the election was called is the increase in the Labour vote. Although the Conservatives are still miles ahead, thanks to their almost complete absorption of the Ukip vote, Labour is creeping back up to its 2015 level – that is, close to 30 per cent of the vote.

Before the election was announced, I thought one of two things would happen in May 2020: either Labour would find a way to increase the number of people who think that Jeremy Corbyn should be Britain’s next Prime Minister (as low as 14 per cent or as high as 21 per cent depending on the pollster), in which case they would have a chance of winning. Or the numbers of people saying Corbyn was the best Prime Minister and the numbers of people saying they would vote Labour would meet in the middle – some Labour voters would warm to Corbyn as he is the Labour leader, others would go off Labour as the party is led by Corbyn.

Instead, neither of those things appears to be happening. The number of people saying they want Corbyn to be Prime Minister is unchanged since the election. But Labour’s vote share isn’t falling, it’s rising. Why? Here are some theories.

Labour are fighting a very good campaign

As I’ve said before and will say again, the only bits of an election that matter are the bits that people who don’t care about politics see: the newsbreaks between songs on music radio, the pictures that play without sound on Sky News in every Wetherspoons through the country, the few minutes at the start of the six and ten o’clock news before people switch channels – or the few minutes at the end before they switch back.

Labour has a great message for those places – a series of popular policies, largely drawn from the social democratic mainstream though with the odd radical flourish such as abolishing tuition fees. There’s a golden thread as there was to the party’s campaigning in the Easter recess: Labour will do something for everyone by getting the wealthiest to pay more, whether that be ending the VAT exemption for private schools, increasing taxation on private healthcare, or undoing the Conservative cuts to corporation tax.

There’s a criticism to be made that these policies are only fixing one of Labour’s Miliband era problems – people weren’t sure what they were for – but doubling down on another, that people worried that Labour would “spend too much”. Certainly, that many more people are saying they will back the Conservatives shows the limits of that approach. But its benefits may be seen by its increase in its vote share.

People feared Ed Miliband, they don’t fear Jeremy Corbyn

One of the things that was very clear to me in the run-up to the last general election when I visited marginal seats is that people who had voted Labour in 2005 but Conservative in 2010 were actively frightened of an Ed Miliband-led government. They were particularly unhappy about an Ed Miliband government that would in fact be “run” by the SNP, but that wasn’t their only fear. The mansion tax – which hits only a handful of homes in London and would have touched not one house in any of those constituencies – was mentioned, as was the idea that Miliband was a weak leader who had “knifed his brother in the back”. (I’m not wholly sure how these two ideas were reconciled with one another, but there you go.)

But because of the polls, those same people genuinely thought that Miliband would be in government.

Now, the number of people who think Jeremy Corbyn will be Prime Minister after 8 June is smaller than the number of people who think the Moon landings were faked. People are simply not very worried about Jeremy Corbyn. That may mean that voters who flit between the two are instead voting for their local representatives or to lessen the Tory landslide.

The Liberal Democrats are doing poorly

If you don’t like Jeremy Corbyn and don’t trust Theresa May, who do you vote for? The usual answer in British politics is the None-of-the-Above party or the Liberal Democrats as they are officially known.

Although Tim Farron has ambitions to establish his party as a genuine alternative to the Tories, not just a repository for disaffection, the assumption of many – including me – was that whatever happened, the party would get the votes of Conservative voters who didn’t like May and Labour voters who didn’t like Corbyn by default.

Although the Liberal Democrats did outperform their national vote share a bit in the local elections, they didn’t do so in very many places they could realistically win on 8 June.

If you look at their campaign, you can see why. Tim Farron has been on the defensive over his views on homosexuality. That Labour are doing better also means the hunger for an alternative in that quarter is not what they might have hoped. And the majority of diehard anti-Brexiteers are concentrated in the big cities, where they cannot hope to overcome Labour’s large majorities.

The polls are wrong

In 2015, there were two mysteries about the polls. The first was the large number of Labour voters saying that they would vote Labour but they didn’t want Ed Miliband in Downing Street or Ed Balls at the Treasury. The second was how to reconcile the polls with Labour’s weak performance in local elections in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. As I tweeted on the night of the European elections, they were the performance of an opposition heading for the knacker’s yard, not Downing Street.

Then at the general election, the mystery was solved: Labour voters saying they didn’t want the Eds near power weren’t Labour voters at all. Instead, they voted for the Conservatives.

Two years later, the same mysteries are present. If Labour’s vote is increasing, why was it down three points in the local elections last week? Why did the Conservatives do better than the polls would suggest, registering the best performance by a governing party in the local elections since 1974? And why do 30 per cent of people say they’ll vote Labour when at the outside just 21 per cent say they believe Jeremy Corbyn is the best Prime Minister?

Read more: Is Labour really as doomed as it seems?

The systematic error of British pollsters is to overstate the number of people who are going to vote for the Labour party. All of the pollsters have implemented measures to fix that problem after the 2015 debacle. But they did the same after the 1992 election, and that clearly didn’t work. (It didn’t even work all that well in 1997, but Labour did so well that no-one really noticed that the opinion polls had slightly overstated Labour’s strength in the country.)

It may be that once again, the pollsters are simply overstating Labour’s popularity.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.