Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday 4 June 2017

What does Labour's poll surge tell us

This isn’t another discussion about whether Labour can ‘win’: I’m far less qualified than others to make predictions of that kind. Nor is it the appropriate point to ask whether the Parliamentary Labour Party (and to a lesser extent myself) were wrong to think a Corbyn leadership would be disastrous: that discussion should be postponed for a week. Instead I want to ask what the Labour surge tells us about the way political information has been disseminated in the UK.

Sir David Butler says “the movement in the polls over this campaign is bigger than in any election I’ve covered since 1945”. (Some data here.) There are three obvious explanations for this surge. A terrible Conservative campaign which led many to think Theresa May had serious failings, a good Labour campaign which led many to think Jeremy Corbyn was not the ogre some said he was, and a Labour manifesto which contained popular policies. The point I want to make is that none of those developments should have come as a surprise. Yet to the parts of the electorate that created the surge they have been a surprise enough to change their vote.

I have talked about Theresa May in an earlier post, and none of the failings that the campaign has exposed were out of character. For example the ‘dementia tax’ U-turn was little different to the U-turn on self-employed tax. One thing that was clear about Jeremy Corbyn is that he runs good campaigns, and the idea that his appeal would be precisely limited to Labour party members was never likely to be true. (Whether it can extend to older Conservative voters we have yet to see.) Finally it was clear to me from the start of his leadership that he would try and adopt policies that were popular, robust and which most MPs could live with. Those that suggest the manifesto marks the end of UK capitalism have no credibility, as an examination of other European countries would demonstrate.

So if May’s weaknesses and Corbyn’s strengths were pretty clear before the campaign began, why have they come as a surprise to those involved in answering the questions of pollsters? The difference between an election campaign and everyday politics is that in a campaign politicians get more time to talk directly to the people. Outside of a campaign, politicians have to rely more on the media to get themselves and their policies across. So part of the story behind the surge is a failure of the media to accurately portray the abilities of politicians. [1]

I’m not talking on this occasion about the bias of the Tory press, because if this was all we would see swings to Labour during every election campaign, and that normally does not happen. More important I think is a failure of centrist and left leaning commentators, who almost all took one side in Labour’s internal divisions. The impression many gave was that Corbyn was hopeless and his policies would be laughed out of court. When neither turned out to be true, his and his party’s popularity improved dramatically

Unfortunately for Labour supporters there is a potential corollary. One idea I have seen put forward is that the polls may be exaggerating the surge because those being polled are paying more attention to the campaign than the average voter. All of the factors I identified above may be having proportionately more impact on voters being polled. (This might explain why many Labour MPs say they do not recognise this surge.) All the more reason to leave retrospectives on Corbyn's leadership until after the vote.

[1] Another factor is Brexit. May emerged as Conservative party leader in chaotic circumstances, without even having to win a contest among Conservative party members. In such chaos, she did not get the scrutiny she deserved. Politics since then has been mainly about Brexit, and while the Conservatives largely united behind May, Labour were more divided. The election was a reminder that other really important issues exist.


  1. The amount of promises of a better Britain the Leave campaign used to gain votes did come to look, in the hands of Tory austerians 2017, something less than a damp squib.

  2. «the polls may be exaggerating the surge because those being polled are paying more attention to the campaign than the average voter»

    My understanding is that the poll numbers we see published are not poll numbers: they are the numbers projected by a model given as input the poll numbers. Each polling vendor have their own model, in which they take to account of various potential sample biases.

  3. «So if May’s weaknesses and Corbyn’s strengths were pretty clear before the campaign began,»

    As previously remarked there are politology studies that show that the impact of the leaders and the press on the elections is negligible or small. Chris Dillow has recently mentioned that even "strong and stable" has been heard only by 15% of potential voters...

    «a failure of centrist and left leaning commentators, who almost all took one side in Labour’s internal divisions.»

    That "centrist and left leaning" seems a bit unfair to them, given that they favoured what P Gould/P Manndelson described as the “quasi-Conservative” side.

    As to my impression of this general election, and the contrast with the local elections a month ago, is that as a rule "core voters" need to be motivated to turn out, given the 40% level of abstentions is rather bigger than the share of each major party, and when they are not motivated attendance at the polling station largely determines the result.

    Unelectable Tony Blair in 2004 delivered, on the back of a committed, proud record of PFI, rising house prices, Iraq, a share of 40% for the Conservatives and 25% for New Labour (a bit worse than the local elections a month ago), but that was largely was because Labour voters could not bring themselves to vote New Labour, and so abstained, not because their vote switched to the Conservatives. At general election time in 2005 however even unelectable Tony Blair managed to scrape back a parliamentary majority, despite losing an additional 1 million votes (to the Liberals...), mostly because house prices were still booming, and because at general elections, which matter, the voters make more of an effort.
    In the local elections a month ago many Labour voters could not bother voting for a party with a PLP that was attacking their own membership, but at general election time it looks that core Labour voters are prepared to make an effort and the PLP have stopped attacking their own membership, as their own jobs are obviously on the line. Even T Hunt in his leaving speech from the Commons acknowledged that J Corbyn has been (like M Foot) very good at keeping a party together and that the core "post-industrial" Labour voters are both needed and with different priorities from those in "Waitrose shopping" areas.

    As always general elections are referendums: for "core" voters on how they feel represented by their parties, for "floating" voters on their "button" issue, which in southern England is pretty much always house prices.

    Southern house prices have been flat or declining for a few months, and that's probably why T May called the election, she does wants to bag her seats now, not end like G Brown who got a house price crash 3 years before the next election.

  4. I think it tells us something different. It tells us that the claims of media bias and mendacity are not in fact solidly based. What primarily dives the media is what is newsworthy, not rightwing bias.

    The case against Corbyn/McDonnell/Milne/Fisher/Murray (by the PLP and others) is not primarily that they won't win (though they won't). Nor indeed whether, in Corbyn's case, he can front up a campaign effectively. It is that their longstanding publicly expressed views make them wholly inappropriate people to be anywhere near power.

    1. McDonnell's past comments are clearly pro-IRA, not necessarily so in the case of Jezza (who was on the editorial board of Labour Briefing when it was pro-IRA). Former NI Secretary Mandelson said during the ceasefires that the IRA could be described as "freedom fighters, resisters", which he later "clarified" to mean something other than he said when the DUP complained. They accepted this with good grace. They did likewise when Corbyn became leader and indeed he kept Vernon Coaker, Miliband's NI secretary.

      What's Jezza's position today? It was scandalously underreported even coming as it did hours before the Manchester bomb: in a reply to written questions from the Tory NI Secretay Brokenshire, he said he opposed the IRA campaign and this included police and soldiers not just civilian deaths. Thus if anything Jezza is an EX-IRA supporter. It was published in Metro. This was the day after the godawful "all bombings" interview.

      4 days after that Tories released a viral vid which has over a million views where the main topic is the IRA.

      So the main problem today *is* his faulty campaign and not his views.

  5. It's very likely, as you say, that those polled are more political than the average voter. One piece of evidence is that, in one poll, 60% of respondents said that the leaders' Question Time on Friday had made them more likely or less likely to vote Labour. The programme was watched by less then 20% of the electorate. Even allowing for people hearing about it 2nd-hand, watching clips etc. the 60% figure is unbelievable.

  6. I find it regrettable that many first rate economists like yourself are nevertheless blind to political reality. The appeal of populists has increased exactly because of the failure of the austerity policies that you denounce. Someone like Corbyn is the ideal person to rally the left in these conditions (as Sanders and not Clinton was in the US).

    I wish that MPs and intellectuals rallied behind Corbyn instead of berating him. Yes, if he won, he would need advice exactly, alas, by enlightened left leaning economists that opposed him all the time as he was rising. I wonder how would that work out.

    And for God's sake give the guy some credit for opposing the Iraq war- at least he got that right, didn't he?

    1. Clinton's fiscal plans called for a 0.5 to 0.8% increase in spending according to Matt Bruenig. Clearly the unsettled political situation was caused by the Obama stimulus being too small and the recovery dragging on for too long. Yet Sanders was dismissed despite the only info about "electability" showing he had great poll ratings vs Trump and Clinton did not. I find it hard to fathom SW-L's post-election ire with Trump given that background. Miliband was wrong, Clinton was wrong. Sanders was abandoned like Jez as if he was a sinking ship.

  7. I would suggest that another reason for the surge is that May chose to make this election about leadership.... and then studiously avoided debating Corbyn. Furthermore, the tories have an absolutely appalling record across the board.

    I suspect that three terrorist attacks which have called into question her accusations that the police were scaremongering when they pointed out the risks of those cuts, her proud association with the terrorist exporting and funding Saudis will not help her much either.

    1. Corbyn's ability to profit from the terrorist attacks is ruined by his failure to denounce the IRA in crystal clear terms to the public from the start of his leadership. See my other comment about the Metro statement the day of the Manc bomb which the public simply hasn't seen. "Jezza is the IRA one" has been seen by every voter for 2 years and the police cuts and Saudi involvement by a minority.

  8. "It tells us that the claims of media bias and mendacity are not in fact solidly based. What primarily dives the media is what is newsworthy, not rightwing bias."

    This is tremendous news for social justice: newspapers do not affect public opinion.
    I look forward to the press ditching all those stories about immigrants on benefits. They could then replace them with stories about tax evasion / avoidance in the sure and certain knowledge that public opinion on those "not paying their fair share of tax" will not change.

    1. SW-L has covered figures showing the public doesn't want cuts in public spending before. I think one channel through which right-wing media persuades people is that they can say the EU budget or immigrants mean we have less. Patriotism can be used to appeal to a sense of social justice.

  9. "a failure of centrist and left leaning commentators, who almost all took one side in Labour’s internal divisions. The impression many gave was that Corbyn was hopeless". It's a knee-jerk assumption the voters are quite right-wing and of course the left has to compromise to win. They underestimate that Blair is very unpopular now and that Miliband's turn left increased Labour's vote share in the teeth of SNP madness.

    Conventional wisdom is stuck in the 90s. As if everything revolves around comfortable middle class voters who will flee at the mention of taxes. 70% of households had flat or declining incomes from 2005-14. And as Miliband said, the core vote is now a floating vote. This isn't 1997.

    Newspaper columnists and broadcast current affairs presenters are the well paid ones. Inside a class and geographic (London) bubble. Everyone knows you can't go left and win elections don't they? And they'll laugh at you for suggesting it?


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.