The election is nearing the final week of campaigning. The major parties continue the tussle to gain the upper hand, with signs that Labour might be closing the gap in the polls between themselves and the Conservatives. An average of all major election polls shows that the Conservative party’s lead has slipped below 10 percentage points, to a 9 point lead, for the first time since a general election was called towards the end of October.
Although Labour has gained ground, it is not clear whether this will be sufficient to deny the Tories the majority they are seeking. Two polls in particular are worth highlighting: a Survation poll conducted on 30 November put the Conservatives up 2 points on 42% with Labour up by 3 to 33%. Another, from ICM, shows even more of a tight gap. It gave a 7 point lead for the Conservatives in its latest polling, a decline from a ten point lead shown by the same polling company on 22nd-25th November.
The first result would produce a Conservative majority, the second is more likely to lead to a hung parliament. In other words, the variation in the polls is still such that only a fool would write off either extremes in the results: the Tories could win by a thumping landslide, or they could just fail to get over the line again, as they did in 2017. A wide range of possibilities resides between these two outcomes.
Perhaps Matthew Goodwin, a leading polling expert at the University of Kent, put it best. He wrote today: “My line remains: a Conservative majority is still the most likely outcome, but a hung parliament is entirely plausible.” In other words, for Conservative supporters this election may end with a repeat of the elation of 2015 or the soul-searching of 2017.
For anxious Tories the YouGov MRP poll from Wednesday 27th November now seems a long way away. It suggested a majority of 68 seats for Johnson and the Conservatives, putting them on a total of 359 seats to Jeremy Corbyn’s 211. The model of this poll, which interviewed 100,000 panellists and used their responses to predict the outcome of every constituency, was the same one which predicted the 2017 hung parliament. Its thoroughness, its large sample size, and its record from two years ago make it a hugely significant poll. But it was taken two weeks before polling day.
But labour has serious problems too. The issue which will continue to concern those in Labour’s campaign headquarters is the lack of clarity surrounding their position on Brexit. It is true that this election is being fought on multiple terrains – public spending, the NHS, law and order – but this is one area where Labour’s ambiguity has been clocked by the voters. The Labour leadership underestimated the willingness of voters in the English Midlands and the North to vote for the Tories’ Brexit policy.
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The Labour party needs to win there if it is going to deny Johnson and the Tories a majority, and they are the seats where clarity on Brexit is most important. But Labour’s other challenge is that they need to galvanise the Remain vote in the South.
The UK’s leading polling expert, the psephologist John Curtice, has already made it clear that the majority of those who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum in the battlegrounds of the midlands and the north already went over to the Conservatives in 2017. This is what he calls “Theresa May’s legacy to Boris Johnson.”
Instead, Labour’s difficulty is that where Johnson and co. appear to be retaining a significant proportion of this pro-Brexit vote from 2017, Labour has not yet managed to unify the Remain vote to a comparable degree. This is an obstacle because their voters from 2017, according to new work by Professor Ed Fieldhouse at British Election Study, voted to Remain in 2016 by a ratio of as much as 3:1.
Most importantly, according to the surveys conducted by Fieldhouse, 62% of those identifying as “likely” Labour voters, even in constituencies categorised as “strong Leave seats”, said that they would prefer for the UK to remain within the EU. This compared to just 25% of those identifying as “likely” Labour voters who said they would prefer to leave.
In Fieldhouse’s view, this means that there is “little evidence to suggest that Labour MPs in Leave constituencies… need to worry more about alienating Leave voters than remain voters”. Instead, he argues, “Labour is very much a Remain party”, even in the Midlands and the North, and “just because Labour voters disproportionately live in Leave areas doesn’t mean that they are more likely to be Leave voters themselves”.
Joe Twyman, the co-founder and director of Deltapoll, is even more unequivocal about Labour’s Brexit policy. According to him, Labour’s strategically non-committal stance is “just not the kind of position you want to be in to fight an election. The position of strategic ambiguity isn’t really working for them”.
There may be some truth in this: a poll by YouGov, Sky News, and The Times on 25-26th November asked voters who had opted for Leave and Remain in 2016 how they would vote in the upcoming election. It showed that Leavers are rallying behind the Conservatives, with 74% of those asked now backing the Tories. On the other hand, the Remainers questioned were significantly more divided: 48% of them said they would vote Labour (up by 16% since the end of October), but 24% and 17% said that they would vote for the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives respectively.
We will see how this all plays out over the next week and two days. Perhaps strategic ambiguity will pay off after all, allowing Labour to cultivate a broad coalition of Leave and Remain voters across the country. However, the polls suggest that it is not working well enough – yet.