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3 December 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 8:15am

Is Labour ahead in the polls?

Having been more than 20 points behind the Tories eight months ago, Labour is now level with them.

By Ben Walker

For the first time in over a year, the Labour Party has gained a small lead over the Conservatives on who should govern the country.

When asked which party they would vote for were an election held today, more voters now say they would vote for Labour than for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

Labour’s vote has risen six points since 2019
The latest GB-wide Westminster voting intentions from the Britain Elects poll tracker

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In the space of eight months, Labour has gone from trailing the Tories by more than 20 points to leading by 0.1. (In the interests of accuracy, this should be treated as a dead heat, with neither side able to claim a clear lead over the other.)

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This is notable, particularly in the current context. The pandemic has encouraged voters throughout the world to support incumbent governments at a time of national emergency – the “rally-round-the-flag effect”. Across the globe – even, albeit temporarily, in the US – voters in the early months of the crisis expressed newfound approval of their leaders. 

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In most cases, that rise in approval has endured – making Labour’s recovery all the more impressive. What has enabled this change?

Since the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader in April, there has been a shift among 2019 Liberal Democrat voters towards Labour. During the 2017 election campaign, just one in five of those who voted Lib Dem in 2015 said they would switch to Labour. Today, in some polls, if undecided voters are excluded, more than half of those who voted Lib Dem in 2019 say they would now defect to Labour.

There weren’t, however, enough Lib Dem voters in 2019 for this alone to explain the overall swing. And the number of people who voted Conservative in 2019 and would now vote Labour is markedly smaller. The other key factor in Labour’s resurgence is something outside of its control: waning Tory enthusiasm.

Much of the reason Labour has caught up is simply that people who voted Conservative in 2019 are telling pollsters they are less enthusiastic about doing so now. The latest YouGov poll found that more than one in five of the Tory party’s 2019 voters are unsure whether they’ll vote for the party again. This compares to just one in ten of those who voted Labour.

One in five of those who voted Conservative in 2019 are unsure whether they’ll do so again
YouGov poll of 2019 Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem voters

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Enthusiasm is an important metric for gauging how high voter turnout will be on election day. The data-based reason for Labour’s parlous performance in 2019 was that its voters were consistently unenthusiastic throughout the campaign – a stark contrast to many Tory voters who were enthusiastic about “getting Brexit done”.

It’s worth noting that the Conservatives have grounds for optimism here. Their disaffected voters are not yet defecting to other parties. Enthusiasm may have fallen but it is still strong enough to keep them level with Labour – at a time when enthusiasm among the latter’s voters is relatively high. If they could regain some of that lost enthusiasm, the Conservatives would retake the lead. The development of a Covid-19 vaccine may help them do just that.

The task for Starmer is two-fold: to retain Lib Dem converts and to begin turning disaffected Tories into Labour voters.

Doing so may be difficult. With polls now showing greater uncertainty among Leave voters (as many as three in ten are ambivalent about their vote), it may be that to secure a substantial lead, Starmer will have to reckon with his perceived Brexit problem. Labour’s gains over the past eight months have come from Lib Dem converts and a re-energised base, not from Leave voters returning to the fold.

But after a period in which voter intransigence over Brexit (at least outside of Twitter) has softened somewhat, such a path may not prove as difficult or unwieldy as once thought.