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20 November 2017updated 21 Nov 2017 10:52am

Are Labour really 12 points ahead in the polls?

According to a senior Conservative, they might be.

By Stephen Bush

Labour’s small opinion poll lead has become Westminster’s biggest talking point. The government is divided and muddled over Brexit, has lost two cabinet ministers in less than two weeks, and is mired in scandal. Yet the opposition can only manage an average lead of a little under 2 per cent.

Or are they? ITV’s Paul Brand reports that a senior Conservative has told him that according to their private polling, Labour are actually miles ahead – 12 points in fact. Could a secret poll really reveal a much bigger Labour lead than the public polls suggest? Some thoughts:

Nothing has changed because… nothing has changed

Labour’s small lead obsesses Westminster because from the daily grind here, it appears that the Tory position has got much worse since the election. So a secret poll showing Labour well ahead is satisfying to commentators because it fits with the general sense of how things “should” be.

But zoom out for a moment: the Conservative position hasn’t really changed all that much since June 2017. The economy is not performing noticeably worse than it was in June. The Brexit talks are not any more deadlocked and rudderless than they were in June. Yes, a couple of people have resigned from the cabinet. I rate Priti Patel a lot more highly than many in Westminster but I doubt very much that a significant bloc of voters knew who she or Michael Fallon were, much less cared about them staying in post.

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There’s a very important “but” here, which is that it is easy to see how the economy will get worse or the Brexit talks will suddenly enter a period of economically damaging crisis. I may be letting my pro-Remain filtered glasses dominate my analysis too much here, but it feels to me at least that the moment when you might expect Labour to break clear of the Conservatives in the polls has not yet arrived.

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I really don’t think polls are all that useful this far out

The thing about voting intention is it’s a lot like asking people, “Which do you prefer: tea or coffee?” Most people will have a strong response in the abstract that may be different given the context. I, for example, vastly prefer tea, but know that the average shop-bought cup of tea will either have been brewed too long or too little, that it won’t be milky enough, etcetera, etcetera. Given all of that, I’ll settle for coffee more often than not when I’m out and about.

As it is highly unlikely that there will be an election for some time, worrying about the polls at this point feels a bit like focusing on whether or not I’m likely to have an Earl Grey or a cappuccino next Wednesday. A great deal could, and likely will, change at that point. The interesting polling questions are the underlying ones about economic competence, best PM, and what people consider a “good” Brexit deal.  (And even then the first two feel somewhat useless as it is highly unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn will be facing Theresa May again next time.)

The more important electoral factor to think about is that thanks to their forward advance in the general election, Labour would have to be the worst-performing opposition ever not to end up in some form of government next time. The Conservatives really would have to do something truly remarkable to stay in office after 2022. And even to tread water they have to (a) deliver a Brexit deal that keeps their 2017 electoral coalition intact, (b) doesn’t hit the economy, and (c) keeps their party together.  Oh, and they also need to avoid a recession, which is in any case is probably about due even if all goes well with Brexit, as we haven’t had one for a while and we tend to have one every decade.

For the Tories, holding onto power a big ask, to put it mildly, and a much more interesting topic than what the polls are doing five years out.

That said, I don’t buy that this poll is real myself

So despite the fact that I can easily see how when the next election comes around, the Labour Party could emerge with a big lead, I doubt this poll is real, for a couple of reasons. The first is that the pattern in local council by-elections, which picked up on the uptick in Labour fortunes during late May this year, fits with the polls: Ukip collapsing, Labour devouring the Green vote, the Liberal Democrats treading water and neither of the big two able to pull ahead.

But the much more important reason is I can’t see why on earth Conservative headquarters would be commissioning nationwide polls of voting intention, particularly this far away from a contest. Voting intention is not all that useful to political parties, as no matter how bad the figures are, “give up and go home at 5pm” is not really an option. Private polls tend to focus on what parties can’t get elsewhere – that is to say, on questions about policy trade-offs, which of the other side’s voters are winnable, which of their own voters are looking elsewhere, and so on. (It’s not as if they can’t see the same polls we all can of voting intention for free.)

So while it is not impossible, it doesn’t feel that likely that this poll would exist. But given how grim the Tory mood is, it is easy to see how rumours that things are really much worse than the public polls can take hold, even close to the top of the party.