Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Should Labour be doing better?

To anyone who cares to look, the Conservatives are doing terribly at the moment. The most important area is Brexit, of course, where through simple incompetence they may fail to move the negotiations on to their second stage this year. But there are plenty of other disasters that would be getting a lot more coverage in the absence of Brexit, such as the Universal Credit rollout.

With such a poor performance you might think that Labour should be making even more headway in the polls. Here is Britain Elects poll tracker

Some are already suggesting that Labour have hit some kind of limit to their support, as a result (of course) of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

If you are going to tell any kind of convincing story about what the polls mean you have to start by explaining the Labour surge in the few weeks before the June General Election. There is a lot of important detail, and no one does this better than Steve Richards. But important as all this is, there is something rather big that is missing. Pretty well any Labour party member will tell you this, and they are right. A central reason why Labour rose by so much so quickly is that they got to talk to the electorate directly, missing out the mediation of the media commentariat. [1]

The way I like to think about this came originally from a paper written in 1967 by the sociologist Frank Parkin, who was trying to explain the ‘paradox’ of working class Conservatives. The dominant culture, he argues, is small c conservative, and so any radical politician like Corbyn is automatically at a disadvantage. This dominant culture, of which the media is a key part, can be challenged by institutions like trade unions, but it also loses much of its hold in a General Elections, where politicians are given unprecedented access to voters, and equally important voters are unusually attentive. I have stressed the importance of the media in many contexts (such as mediamacro), I argued this is what was happening as the polls started to move before the result, and again after the result.

Of course this alone did not guarantee that Labour would do as well as they did, or indeed whether someone from the centre left might have done better still. In Heather Stewart’s excellent ‘long read’ account of Labour’s popularity transformation in the 2017 General Election (GE), she writes
“In that moment – as the exit poll showed Labour stripping Theresa May of her governing majority – this ragtag band of ideologues, who had spent much of their lives fighting on the fringes of British politics, became a government-in-waiting. Corbyn, a 200-1 outsider for the Labour leadership less than two years earlier, sat on his sofa wondering whether he was about to become Britain’s next prime minister. A hung parliament was one of the scenarios his close team of advisers had planned for, but it was at the upper end of their expectations. They hugged each other – but they didn’t believe it yet.”
The extent of the Labour surge was not inevitable, as their leadership understood. To explain the extent of the Labour surge, you need to bring in other factors that Steve Richards and others have talked about, none of which were inevitable.

After the election it was Corbyn, not May, who enjoyed the winner’s honeymoon, and Labour overtook the Conservatives in the polls, peaking at the end of June. But after that politics returned to normal, or as normal as they can be in this Brexit period. Labour’s poll rating began to fall away very slowly, as you might expect with the media now filtering the news that most people see. [2]

Anthony Wells of YouGov directly addresses the question posed in the title of this post here. He points out that many voters are just unaware of issues like Patel’s resignation, and so may not see the full extent of the government’s self-inflicted problems. He also reports a YouGov poll that asks Tory voter why they support the Conservatives. Around half said they supported their aims, even though they were struggling to deliver them. 22% said that they were competent, even though they didn’t agree with all their aims. 19% said that they didn’t agree with their aims and that they were not governing well, but that they were better than Corbyn’s Labour. Is that 19% high or low? No comparative figures from earlier times are offered. Is it surprising, given the treatment of Corbyn by the right wing press? Does that mean that Corbyn is a barrier for Tories switching? - it may, or it may not. Does it mean that Labour have hit some kind of plateau of support? Of course not: the 19% may still be persuaded, and the 22% that somehow think this government is competent are low hanging fruit.

But what about Brexit. As Jolyon Maugham reminded me, public support for the government’s handling of Brexit has plummeted. Why isn’t Labour picking up support as a result of this? YouGov asks a regular question about particular issues, and which political party would handle them best. After the election 34% said the Conservatives would handle Brexit best, but that had fallen to 26% by October. Yet the equivalent percentages for Labour were 20% and 18%. In other words the government’s bad Brexit performance is hurting the Conservatives, but not benefiting Labour. If you look at the parties that have benefited from the fall in those thinking the Conservative party are best at delivering Brexit, they are UKIP (why haven’t we left yet), the LibDems (Leave regretters), and most of all None/Don’t Know (haven’t a clue).

This does seem to point to a weakness in Labour’s approach. The line to take, given Labour’s Brexit strategy, is the one that Corbyn has used: the government’s internal divisions and the Brexit hardliners are destroying the chance of a successful negotiation with the EU. But that message is not getting across. I personally do not see why Corbyn should be a problem in that respect. But with more fallout over Brexit very likely in the near future, this looks like an opportunity Labour are missing.

[1] To be fair, Steve Richards does touch on this in talking about how commentators, and many Labour MPs, underestimated Corbyn’s ability to campaign in a General Election.

[2] Here is just one example. How many saw the results of this medical study reported on BBC news? It took me less than a hour to read the study. The basis for the analysis can be questioned, as the authors acknowledge, but given the political controversy around similar claims on Question Time the decision not to cover the report looks very odd. To hide behind the assessment of an outside body that itself has been the subject of controversy (see here and here) seems very naive.  


  1. The real question is surely why are the other small parties doing worse? Also much criticism comes from Labour folk who could not get passed 31% when even Lib Dem vote collapsed in 2015 - much going to UKIP which may explain Labour's non position on BrExit it has more to lose than gain whatever the delusional noo Lab' types think.

    Another factor might be. Polls are adjusted to what last happened (guessing but a youth surge for instance did not show last time for this reason based on 2015 when it did not happen)and the Tory vote tanked after the postal ballots had already gone in. 25% of the vote was with May 10+ ahead. That may affect adjustments this time as the final result overstated Conservative support potentially.

  2. "This does seem to point to a weakness in Labour’s approach£

    No, it shows the weakness in your analysis.

    Your original claim on twitter was that the Mainstream Media (BBC Bias etc) was stopping people from realising how badly Brexit was going, and as a result not opting for Labour. As Maugham pointed out, the polling data doesn't support you.

    The strategy of Corbyn, McDonnell, Milne, Fisher and Murray (all of whom favour Brexit) is to be ever so slightly more Remain-y than the Tories. As political positioning it works supremely well. Most Remain voters (like me) are then left with two unpalatable choices in most seats. Vote Labour, or vote for a party that opposes Brexit but who may let in the Tories. But Corbyn et al are just not seen in a positive way in the polling, and never have been relatively.

    Utterly disastrous for the UK of course, as it means we have no opposition properly arguing for membership of the Single Market and Customs Union (and a shadow Chancellor last night voting with the Tories to end it). With a serious opposition it might have been possible to stop Hard Brexit, not with an opposition positioning themselves in this way.

    It was Brexit that saved Corbyn electorally. Without it, he'd still be facing Cameron and be being kicked around by his own MPs who have spent their careers opposing the Campaign Group.

    Lucky him. Unlucky us.

  3. It seems like Corbyn has been totally absent from the media while the Tories have daily Brexit problems.

    He is not taking advantage of the opportunities.

    It doesn't help still having an ambiguous policy on Brexit.

    With no strong Remain message and no strong comments on each Tory Brexit problem - especially the economic and financial evidence - it is no wonder the polls are where they are.

  4. Brexit is a movement without a leader and Trump is a leader without a movement; so I wrote some months ago on this blog.

    However, for Conservatism in the UK the showdown with the Redwoods is coming, as the harder right looks to lead by purporting to follow.

    It is then that Labour should pounce.

  5. Labour's approach to Brexit has been, and is, very confusing and I suspect that the vast majority of voters have no idea what Labour's stance is on the subject so it'hardly surprising that they haven't benefited.

    I would also think that many (rightly) believe that the PLP is just as split on Brexit as the Tories, although they have much more "history".

    Would Labour be doing any better in the Brexit negotiations? I very much doubt it and I think many voters are of the same view. Corbyn has been very ambivalent over a long period about Brexit and most voters may not like what the Tories aren't accomplishing but are not at all convinced that Labour would do any better.

  6. Could the problem be, at least in part, that for those who do pay attention, they don't see Labour as opposing the government enough? See yesterday's vote against an amendment to keep the UK in the single market, along with the Tories.

    I mean, what's the point of voting for Labour, if they're just Tories light when it comes to Brexit, and they don't really look like they have a firm idea of how to make things better on the rest? All I see is them promising more money to each and any sector that people feel should get more, but where are they going to get it?

    The narrative about Corbyn being maligned by the media that's usually repeated by at least a dozen Corbyn fans any time anyone expresses some reservations on the guy - from what I've seen in discussions online - really isn't a good look either. It just comes across as deflecting any blame (could Corbyn communicate with the media better?). Anyone who doesn't build an altar for the guy is a Tory or a filthy traitor, it's just really not a good look.

    It has been shown that there was quite some organised tactical voting on the last election and Labour made gains in Remain constituencies. My husband voted Labour even though he doesn't approve of their stance on Brexit and thinks they're useless on economic matters because he wanted to hurt the Tories, not because he wanted Labour specifically to win. When you're given a choice between something terrible and something bad, if you're pragmatic you go for the bad.

    Could it be that this position is more common than one might think and therefore when we're away from the elections, people just express their opinion on who they think is good? The "don't know" is probably the nearer to "none of the above" for the purposes of such a question and that could be why what the Tories lose doesn't then translate in gains for Labour.

  7. I am and will always be Non Trampis21 November 2017 at 21:27

    People could vote for Labour in the election knowing full well they would not get elected. This made more sense given how cynical May was in calling the election.
    Now people cannot do that.
    Voting for Labour means Corbyn as PM and few people are stupid as to want that. mind you They were as stupid in the USA!

  8. "The line to take ... is the one that Corbyn has used ... But that message is not getting across. ... this looks like an opportunity Labour are missing."

    Or it may be that mainstream media bias against Labour - in its current, coherently left-wing form - is ensuring that the message isn't getting across. I wouldn't harp on this if you hadn't raised the possibility yourself.

  9. The obvious explanation is that there is a ceiling on Labour's support as long as Jeremy Corbyn is leader. But that doesn't explain the failure of disgruntled Tories to peel away to smaller parties (not sure why you say the LD's and UKIP are benefiting from the situation. The big story is that they should be but they're not.)

  10. During election campaigns the Tory newspapers---the kind printed on paper---still play an important role in persuading readers not to vote Labour. Since the public buy five times as many Conservative newspapers as Labour ones, that presumably means for every one Labour-supporting journalist there are around five Conservative ones working against him.

    This means that Conservative newspapers can produce prodigious numbers of anti-Labour articles during election campaigns which are read by prodigious numbers of people. Far more anti-Labour articles hit the newsstands every day than anti-Conservative ones.

    The articles fall into two rough categories: “historical trashing” and “current trashing”. “Historical trashing” articles are prepared in advance of the elections and are dug out from storage during the campaign itself. Conservative journalists keep an on-going dossier of old interviews / articles / video clips containing embarrassing quotes which can then be woven into, say, an anti-Corbyn article during the election campaign. When people read an article like this they are often unaware of how old the material is.

    “Current trashing” articles are harder to prepare in advance because they rely on criticising, say, the latest Labour policy released at yesterday’s press conference. Since it is easy to predict what policies Labour will come up with, it is possible to have an outline article prepared in advance.

    This standard operating procedure of the Conservative press obviously worked to some extent in June 2017—Labour didn’t win—but neither did it produce the 100-seat majority about which the Cabinet were salivating in April 2017.

    The elephant in the room of course is the online campaign which is way outside my experience.

  11. It may indeed be that there's "a ceiling on Labour's support as long as Jeremy Corbyn is leader", but anyone advancing this argument really needs to look at Labour's poll ratings between 2001 and 2017, which seldom reached their current 'ceiling' (42%). Perhaps Labour should be doing better, but we *are* doing better than we were under Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband (post-2012) or Tony Blair (post-2002).


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