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What is it about the Labour Party that, in the face of the most ill-starred government in living memory, they have made no headway in gathering public support since the 2017 general election?
The open goal facing them is wide enough for the Mississippi to flow through, with probably enough space left over to fit the Amazon in as well. The Conservatives have been trapped in a nightmare ever since the general election, with no week passing without a relentless diet of bitter party divisions and truly dire headlines.
Yet where is Labour in all this? Even if one regards the early February 2018 YouGov poll, with its four-point Conservative lead, as an outlier, the eight months following the disastrous Conservative performance in June 2017 offer no evidence that Labour is benefiting from the turmoil engulfing their opponents. The table below averages the monthly voting intention polls published since the 2017 general election:
|Month||No. of polls||Con||Lab|
* Polls sampled after the general election
The aftermath of the 1992 general election offered very different political environment to that of 2017. John Major had won an unexpected victory, defying the campaign opinion polls (38 out of 50 suggesting narrow Labour leads) by securing a seven-point lead in the popular vote for the Conservatives. The table below averages the monthly voting intention polls published in the comparable period following the 1992 general election:
|1992||No. of polls||Con||Lab|
* Polls sampled after the general election
No two general elections are the same but there are certain similarities between 1992 and 2017. The swings from Conservative to Labour were broadly the same – 2%; and in 1992 Labour made a few more net gains of seats (42) than in 2017 (30).
On 16 September 1992, The UK was humiliatingly forced to suspend its membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) after the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, had raised interest rates from 10% to 15% in one day, in a failed attempt to defend the pound. No wonder the polls switched so dramatically in Labour’s favour from that month onwards. However, even before that catastrophe for the Conservatives, Labour had increased its support in the polls by an average of five-points (April-August 1992). But what of subsequent elections?
The table below shows the comparable periods after each election from 1997 onwards.
Change in main Opposition party support in monthly poll average eight months after general election
|General Election||Opposition Party||% change|
Once again, one is left to wonder at the under-performance of Labour, post-2017, especially given the state of the Conservative party that they are facing. Mrs May still has higher ratings as the best candidate for Prime Minister than Mr Corbyn. The Labour leader has never once achieved a positive rating in the Ipsos MORI time series on satisfaction/dissatisfaction with party leaders, unlike every other Labour Opposition leader since the 1970s. The Conservatives are still better regarded than Labour in terms of managing the economy. And, despite the fact that a clear majority of voters believe the Conservatives are handling the Brexit negotiations badly, they are still preferred over Labour as the party most likely to secure the best outcome.
Labour can justifiably point to a number of issues where they are preferred to the Conservatives, including the NHS, Housing, Education and Unemployment; and they are seen as the party most on the side of ‘ordinary’ people. But why does this not translate into increased political support? It is not as if Labour is currently struggling against other strong contenders for Conservative votes: UKIP has totally collapsed and the Lib Dems have only reached double figures in one opinion poll (out of 68) since the 2017 election.
The Westminster graveyard is littered with the corpses of party leaders who claimed it would be “alright on election night”. As increasing numbers of people are observing, if Labour cannot put the Conservatives on the canvas when Mrs May is leading them, then what chance will they have against another Conservative leader? Labour has been lucky that everyone’s attention has been on Conservative woes. That luck will not last forever.
David Cowling is an independent Political Analyst.