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This is the moment when Labour's poll rating gets a lot, lot worse

 At no time in the modern era has Labour in opposition gone up in the polls from this point.

History matters in elections. In this year’s US Presidential contest, political science models based on past relationships – involving, for instance, incumbent popularity or economic growth – did better than short-term modelling based on opinion polls. Most such models predicted a very close race, which could go either way, and in some notable instances predicted a Donald Trump victory. Local election results from the 2010-15 Parliament were the clue that allowed forecaster Matt Singh to predict that opinion polls were failing to pick up the true levels of party support running up to the UK’s 2015 general election. 

So if we want to look ahead to the next general election, and for all opinion polling’s recent problems, it is probably still useful to look at where we are now in UK polling. It should be quite a simple job to look at present levels of support for Labour in opposition, and the Conservatives in government, and to project what will happen next based on past experience.

Let’s start with the deficit between Labour’s numbers and those of the Conservatives. Right now, if we take each pollster in the field’s last results at an average, Labour is a long, long way behind – 13 per cent or so. They have never before been so far behind while in opposition at this stage of a Parliament, about 19 months following the previous general election. The closest comparison is the eight points by which Neil Kinnock’s Labour lagged the triumphant Thatcherite Conservative party in December 1988. Oppositions have more often actually led the government in the polls at this point. Even in 1980, with Labour deeply divided, Michael Foot was, in his very early days as leader, able to enjoy an 11-point lead over a very unpopular government struggling with high inflation and unemployment. 

When we look at what might happen between now and the next election, an even worse picture emerges. At no time in the modern era, if we take that as meaning the period since 1970, has Labour in opposition gone up in the polls from this point. Between 1993 and 1997, a youthful and popular Tony Blair managed to keep the party's ratings high all the way through to an election - the polling score fell only by 0.4 per cent. But that is the exception. In fact, at this point in Parliament, Labour while in opposition has on average lost 7.2 per cent. After Foot's early boost, Labour split and its polling score plummeted by 19.6 per cent. For today's leaders, this would imply a slump from today's polling of 29 per cent support to 21.8 per cent at the next election. 

If those numbers sound apocalyptic, here's a more positive spin. At each general election, Labour has been historically overestimated by polls – by perhaps 1.5 per cent, or a little more. If pollsters’ new post-2015 methods have eliminated this polling error (a generous assumption), then 1.5 per cent or even more of the expected polling "fall" from this point to the next election has already been eliminated. So, if you scrub out that 1.5 per cent fall from my earlier projection, Labour might actually hope to receive 23.3 per cent, or even slightly more. Let’s avoid the perils of false specificity on as generous a basis as we can muster, and round this number up to 24 per cent.

What, though, of the Conservative government’s likely score? Well, at the moment its support hovers around 42 per cent. The honeymoon effect of a new Prime Minister is probably still affecting this rating, although we should also bear in mind that the Conservatives still probably have a lot of scope to soak up Ukip voters if that party does implode. In any case, the evidence since 1970 is that the Conservatives’ vote share at the next general election might be a little higher polling suggests at the moment – by an average of 1.8 per cent or so. Let’s again not be too precise, and call the gain 2 per cent. That would see Theresa May’s party attracting 44 per cent at the polls

The last stage of this analysis is to look at how these very rough figures might translate to numbers in the House of Commons. A result which saw Labour gain 24 per cent, and the Conservatives 44 per cent, would mean on old boundaries a Conservative overall majority of around 150, with 400 seats, while Labour had just about 160 seats. On the new boundaries likely to come into force late in 2018, these shares of the popular vote would again give the Conservatives an absolute majority of perhaps 150, and a total of 375 seats of in a smaller 600-seat Commons, with only something like 150 Labour MPs returned. That would be the party’s worse showing since 1931.

If Labour do indeed receive a score towards the lower end of the 20s, and the Conservatives something over 40 per cent, the next general election will see Labour very badly, indeed historically, savaged. It is possible that the party will suffer a ringing, enduring defeat that will be hard to recover from. It should be stressed that this is a very crude way of looking at these numbers. Labour will probably do better in urban seats, and particularly in London, than this raw data suggests. And in these surprising political times, during which so little seems solid, Labour might somehow be able to escape such a fate. But right now, the historical signs are very, very ominous indeed.
 

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2011). He is currently working on A History of Water in Modern Britain (forthcoming, 2016). He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past

CREDIT: CREATIVE COMMONS
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A group of men united only by sport was once my idea of hell. What changed?

It struck me, during the course of our team’s annual pre-season dinner, how much I like my team-mates. 

To the cricket team’s annual pre-season dinner. Although I’ve been playing for them for ten years or so, I’ve never been to one of these. This is because when I say “I’ve been playing for them for etc…” you’re probably not getting the right picture. What I mean is: I have played ten matches for them, and last year not at all, with a highest score of 22, and an average of 10.17. If you think that’s unimpressive, it’s a lot better than when I was a schoolboy, and I am just 26th placed out of 50 people who have played ten or more matches for them. Last year I was 25th, I see. Well, I’m going to have to do something about that.

The idea is that if I go to the dinner this time, it will inspire me to get in shape and play a game or two this season. I almost invariably enjoy it when I do, especially the time I was in a record-breaking tenth-wicket partnership of 72 while batting with a broken hand. (Well, finger. But a finger’s a part of the hand, isn’t it? Even the little finger.) I suppose there are times when I don’t enjoy it so much, such as when it’s raining hard enough for the cows in neighbouring fields to sit under a tree, but not hard enough to send us back to the pavilion or, better still, the pub, and the opposition are clouting us all over the ground despite the weather, and if we’d batted first – we never bat first, in my (limited) experience – the other lot would have polished us off about an hour ago, and we could now all be cosily inside the pavilion or, as I said earlier, even better, the pub. Then again, the team is called the Rain Men, so what did I expect?

So signing up for games involves considering a number of factors: some kind of mystic calculation about what the weather will be like, an assessment of how far away the ground is (we’re a nomadic team, so we don’t have one of our own), and how fit I think I’m going to be on the day. That’s the troublesome part. There is, of course, the melancholy of coming back, aching and knackered, at what is usually well after nine in the evening on a Sunday, lugging a cricket bag, like someone who has not been able to let go of his childhood and is out after his bedtime.

The fitness, as I said, is problematic. I got slightly out of puff going for a pee between the second and third paragraphs of this column, so I think there is going to be a lot of tedious spadework in store for me. My dumb-bells are in East Finchley, which I don’t go to, although as my cricket stuff is there too I suppose I’m going to have to bite that bullet sooner or later. If I eschew the dumb-bells then there will always be the floor, gravity, and push-ups. There will always be stairs, somewhere, I can run up and down, while I have the use of my legs. While there is an earth I can walk upon, I can walk upon it. The upper body strength, so I can pick up a cricket bat without falling over, is the thing to aim for, but right now the main goal is to be able to get out of bed and go to the loo without getting winded.

Anyway, the dinner. I decided that I’d walk to the restaurant. This was largely because the restaurant is about 200 yards from where I am holed up at the moment. There is, literally, only one restaurant closer to me. I walked a bit more than 200 yards because I had to swing by Sainsbury’s to pick up a couple of bottles of wine (the McGuigan’s Reserve Cab Sauv at £6.50 a bot, special offer, being the sedative of choice these days), as the restaurant is unlicensed. We met at the pub first, of course.

It struck me, during the course of the evening, how much I like my team-mates. I am by no means the oldest, so many of them are rich in wisdom and experience. (Amazingly, the team won more games last season than it has in its history, but that might have been because I hadn’t played for them.) Two of the people I am particularly fond of couldn’t make it, but at least I got to have A Long Rant About Life In General with Marcus Berkmann, author of two extremely amusing books about the team (Rain Men and Zimmer Men), as well as the greatest book about Star Trek ever written (Set Phasers to Stun).

Imagine: a long table sat at by a group of about 15 men, united only by a sport. It would once have been my idea of hell. So why is it not now? Is it because I actually like these guys? They’re not the typical idea of a cricket club gang, I have to say that. And we do, admittedly, talk about cricket a fair amount. But still. (I even liked I—, who gave up smoking and then had a rush of blood to the head last year and sent a round-robin email to the team saying how much he hated A—, one of our most lovable players. I— couldn’t make it to the dinner, largely on the grounds of not having been invited.) Or am I that lonely? 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war