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Jeremy Corbyn’s surge: is Labour’s poll boost real?

Could Labour spring a surprise after all?

By Stephen Bush

Are Labour on the verge of something big? YouGov’s final seat projection puts them on 269 seats, gaining just 37 seats on 2015, but crucially, more than enough gains for the parties of the centre and left to shut out the parties of the right – the Conservatives would have 302 seats, comfortably the largest party but not big enough for the DUP and the UUP to get them out of trouble. (I explain the arithmetic of a hung parliament here.)

Although YouGov are comfortably providing the sunniest picture for Labour supporters, the picture is clear across all the pollsters – Labour are surging across the polls. Although there are two very distinct groups as far as the polling companies are concerned – ICM, IpsosMori, ComRes and ORB are showing large Conservative leads, YouGov, Opinium and Survation are showing small ones – they are actually showing a very similar picture.

What they’re showing is this: Theresa May has taken a big chunk out of the Ukip vote, and a small but significant slice of the Liberal Democrat vote. That’s been the pattern since the start of the campaign. What’s happened is that her campaign has alienated a group of Labour voters who dislike Jeremy Corbyn and were planning on voting for May, who had presented herself as a different type of Conservative. Now as far as that group of voters is concerned, May has revealed herself to be a thoroughly typical Conservative, and that group is now back to voting for Labour. That’s what’s got the Conservatives into the mid-40s across the polls.

As for Labour, they’ve held onto the bulk of their 2015 voters, and hoovered up a large chunk of the Liberal Democrat vote, gobbled up the Green vote and taken a small but significant slice of the Ukip votes.

But the reports from the campaigns and most activists on the ground are much more favourable to the Conservatives. I’ve been calling round and travelling the country and here are some thoughts on what’s really going on.

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Campaigners aren’t picking up a surge – except they are

I – and a number of other journalists – have been ringing around talking to candidates and staffers in search of Labour’s poll surge and no-one seems to have detected it.

I don’t want to critique the methods other people have used when calling round as, obviously, I wasn’t there, but I’ve noticed that speaking to Labour MPs and organisers, I got a very different answer to the question “Any sign of a surge?” to “How do you think it’s going?” When I asked people the first, they tended to say “No”, but when I asked candidates and field organisers what they were seeing, they tended to say that the pattern was “unchanged” or “neck-and-neck”.

But the crucial thing is that we saw in the local elections, the polls, and indeed in the handful of local council by-elections since then that the Conservatives have significantly increased their vote share on the back of the Ukip vote. That the pattern hasn’t changed that much for Labour does suggest some kind of vote increase.

The pattern was clearer when I spoke to organisers, who obviously, unlike candidates, are slightly more detatched from the process. One Labour organiser said that they had “gobbled up the Green vote like Pac-Man”. Several of their Conservative counterparts are predicting that at a local level, they and Labour will have a combined vote share in excess of 80 per cent of the vote. They are still expecting to win with an increased majority but for Labour to also gain votes.

And on both sides, they report a similar process to that seen by the polls – an increase in the firmness of the Labour vote, a slight fall in the Tory vote, and the smaller parties being almost wholly devoured by the big two. 

This feels very similar to 2015. A lot of Labour candidates hit their “win number” – that is, the number of votes their Conservative opponents got in 2010, plus one – but lost, as the Conservatives also increased their vote share.

Neither high command believes there is a surge

Before the last election, I reported on a late burst of panic among Labour’s field organisers, whose promise began to fall unexpectedly in the last days. On the Conservative side, they moved their heavyweights into Liberal Democrat seats as they realised how deadly the threat of a Labour-SNP coalition was to Liberal Democrat MPs.

Labour’s field organisers are not sounding more cheerful and the Conservatives, as Chris Cook’s excellent analysis for the BBC shows, have not moved their attacking line back (or indeed started moving their defensive line).

So this surge has not been noticed by either side’s campaign teams, which you’d expect.

You wouldn’t expect campaigners to pick up all of the surge

There is a massive, massive “but” here. Best practice for the ideal field campaign is to go into the final weeks knowing exactly where and who your voters are, and to winnow them down so that on election day, you are only turning out your own voters. Because of the snap election, most have been canvassing everyone who has voted in any of the previous five local elections: which includes both the referendum, when youth turnout spiked, and the general election, when it very much did not.

If Jeremy Corbyn has energised a big tranche of previous non-voters or supporters of Ukip, you wouldn’t necessarily expect many campaigns to have picked up on that. Younger voters also tend to be harder to canvass as they live in flats with entryphones, are more likely to work unsociable hours or to be out for social reasons. Several organisers have estimated that their canvass returns tend to be about a decade older than the demographics of the seat for this reason.  They’re less likely to have postal votes, which are heavily rumoured to be uniformly terrible for Labour outside of the big cities.

So if the more favourable polls for Labour are right, the campaigns could easily have missed them. And don’t forget that Labour’s internal expectation was that they would end up with between 255 to 280 seats on election night. Instead, they ended up with 232.  

I don’t buy that this would have happened under any other Labour leader

Labour are doing a very good job of gobbling up the anti-system vote, whether they be Green voters, Liberal Democrat voters or Ukip voters. A number of organisers have reported seeing the combination “S10, U15, L17” – that is, Liberal Democrat 2010, Ukip 2015, Labour 2017 in their returns.

There is a good chunk of what used to be the Liberal Democrat vote that went to Ukip in 2015 that has been voting to give the establishment a bit of a kick, and has found Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour a congenial home.

It doesn’t feel likely to me that these voters would have found any of the alternatives to Corbyn a natural home, who either worked as Cabinet ministers (Yvettte Cooper), for Cabinet ministers (Liz Kendall and Owen Smith), or both (Andy Burnham). This surge may be of limited electoral use, but I don’t buy that it would have happened under a different leader.

This isn’t what the local elections might suggest, but I don’t think that matters

No opposition has ever got a higher share of the vote in the general election than it has in the local election before. Not in 1979, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010 or 2015, when the opposition parties underhit their local performance of a year prior by varying degrees, and not in 1983, 1987 or 1992 when the elections were held in the same year but not on the same day as the local elections.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to look at Labour’s very bad set of local election results – the party would have got 27 per cent of the vote had the whole country voted in May 2017 – listen to the almost universally negative noises coming from most of the party’s organisers, and conclude that the polls are wrong. This is a perfectly viable theory: it might be proved incorrect, but it’s not stupid.

However, I don’t buy it myself. Why? Well, because what’s also very clear is that the Liberal Democrats have collapsed since the local elections. They also had a very bad night, and it punched their biggest bruise: the fear among voters that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a wasted one.

Local Liberal Democrats have gone from being optimistic to deeply pessimistic about this election. Labour voters who might have been tempted by the Liberal Democrats’ more robust Brexit stance have looked at the numbers and concluded that the Liberal Democrats can’t stop Brexit, and so they might as well vote for Labour. 

That’s a big, big difference between 1983 and 1987 and today. Then, the local elections were held before the general election and made it look as if the SDP/Liberal Alliance were a viable option, boosting their vote share. Now the local elections have done the reverse.

I would now be more surprised if this election held to historical type than if Labour exceeded their 27 per cent local election performance.

The local elections probably still tell us something about who and where these voters are

The really useful thing about local elections – as well as setting who runs a series of important services – is that because they are held at a ward level, we get a better idea of who is voting for the various parties than we do from a general election.

Both the 2017 and the 2016 local elections have given us a pretty good understanding of who the average Labour voter under Corbyn is. It’s pretty similar to the average Labour voter under Ed Miliband: young, living in a big city, or from a population with a high number of graduates, ethnic minorities or both.

The evidence in the 2016 locals and in the polls now is that Corbyn is doing better with these voters than Ed Miliband was. The bad news is he is doing worse with voters who are older, living in a small town or living somewhere with very few graduates or ethnic minorities.

The difficulty is that these voters live together

The very bad news is that – and this is heavily anecdotal – this looks to be an even less useful vote share than Ed Miliband got. Basically, the Labour people who are sounding cheery – there are some – tend to be campaigning in big cities or university towns. There is some hope that the party might surprise people in Battersea, for instance, and Oxford East, where they expected a tough fight as the popular local MP Andrew Smith has stood down, now looks like a solid hold for the party.

But when you talk to people in suburban constituencies or small towns, they start to sound very, very miserable indeed.

On referendum night I said that voting for Remain was a better guide to city status than a cathedral. Most of Britain’s great cities – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Bristol, Glasgow and Newcastle – all voted to Remain. Its smaller cities and towns opted, in the main, to Leave.

Labour’s surge may be similarly geographically limited.  

Jeremy Corbyn will beat Ed Miliband in vote share, but will end up with fewer seats

My strong expectation from travelling the country and talking to campaigners is that Jeremy Corbyn will beat Ed Miliband’s vote share in 2015 and may even match Tony Blair’s in 2005. But I also think that these extra voters are insufficiently distributed thanks to first past the post, and that the party will lose significant numbers of seats.

This is great if politics is an argument in the pub. But the blunt truth is that Labour would swap Ed Miliband’s 31 per cent for Gordon Brown’s 28 per cent in a heartbeat, as that 28 per cent delivered 40 Scottish Labour MPs and a hung parliament.

It feels to me that once again, Labour will have gained voters while moving further away from office. 

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