Labour’s performance in polls and in mid-term elections has become a political football – not just the usual rather routine spinning of parties saying how well they are doing, but a key faultline in Labour’s internal leadership battle. A key argument of Jeremy Corbyn’s critics is that he is an electoral liability – therefore they highlight anything suggesting that Labour are doing badly. In contrast Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters brandish anything that can be presented as a sign that Labour are actually doing well.

Which side is right? A lot of what both sides say is exaggerated or unfair. Some of it is just downright untrue. For what it’s worth, this is an attempt to unpick the evidence and look at it as fairly as I can. I expect, therefore, that this piece will not make anyone happy. It’s not going to say that Labour polls are the worst for any party ever, nor that Jeremy Corbyn is actually the messiah. It’s also quite long, so if you’re hoping for either of those conclusions, perhaps give it a skip.

Labour in the polls

Polls in August so far have shown Labour between 7 and 14 points behind the Conservatives. However, this is probably not a fair yardstick to judge them upon given Theresa May is enjoying a honeymoon in the polls. A more reasonable point of comparison is to go back earlier in the year, before the EU referendum. Between the March budget and the EU referendum there was an average Conservative lead in the polls of three points.

There have been frequent claims that Labour were equal to (or even ahead of) the Tories before Labour’s leadership troubles erupted. This is a disingenuous claim at best, and seems to rest wholly upon cherry-picking individual polls. There was a single Survation poll straight after the referendum result that had the Conservatives and Labour equal, but an ICM poll conducted at the same time had a Tory lead of four points and the average position at the time was a Tory lead of about three points. At no point this year have the polls ever shown a consistent Labour lead (and the last poll to show Labour ahead was in April).

votingintention

A typical opinion poll has a margin of error of +/-3%. That means if the actual position is a Tory lead of about three points, then random chance will sometimes spit out individual polls showing Labour neck-and-neck or even just ahead, or, at the other extreme, showing Tory leads of six points or more. Anyone seeking to honestly describe the state of the parties cannot reasonably just pick one of those outlying polls and claim it reflects the actual picture, ignoring the wider average. The only reasonable way of judging support is to take an average across many polls.

So, if Labour were on average 3 points behind the Tories, would that be good or bad for an opposition? The typical pattern of opinion polls is that oppositions open up leads in mid-term polls (so-called “mid-term blues”) and then governments recover as the election approaches. Obviously this does not always happen, but opposition parties that go on to win the next general election have usually opened up towering leads in mid-term polls. Oppositions that have not secured large leads in mid-term typically get hammered at the subsequent general election. On those grounds, an opposition that’s still three points behind mid-term is heading for disaster.

However, there’s an important caveat… oppositions that go on to win almost always have big leads mid-term. But that doesn’t mean they have big leads throughout the whole Parliament. In the first half of 2006 David’s Cameron’s Conservatives only had a lead of 2 points or so; in early 1975 the Conservatives were still behind Labour. In contrast, in early 1980 Labour had a healthy lead over the Conservatives. How well or badly a party was doing in the polls this early in the Parliamentary term is really not much of a guide as to how well they will end up doing at the next election – too much depends on the performance of the government in power and what triumphs and disasters fall upon them over the next three years.

Where the polls are more alarming for Labour is some of the underlying questions. Labour were ahead in voting intention throughout most of the last Parliament, but were behind on economic competence and leadership, which are normally seen as important drivers of voting intention (the ultimate explanation of this apparent paradox was, of course, that the voting intention polls were wrong). If we look at economic questions and leadership questions now Labour’s position looks bleak.

On who would make the best Prime Minister Theresa May leads Jeremy Corbyn by 58% to 12% with YouGov, by 58% to 19% with ComRes. YouGov currently give the Conservatives an 18 point lead on running the economy, when ComRes last asked in March the Tories had a 16 point lead. Looking at MORI’s long term approval trackers Jeremy Corbyn’s net approval rating is minus 41 – already pushing at Ed Miliband’s lowest of minus 44 (and those depths took Miliband years). Corbyn’s favourability rating in ComRes last week was minus 28, worse than everyone else they asked about but Trump.

Labour at the ballot box

The other way of measuring support are mid-term elections. Just like opinion polls there is a typical pattern of oppositions doing well in mid-term contests and then falling back come a general election. Oppositions that scrape wins in mid-term normally go on to lose the following general election; oppositions that go on to win have usually crushed the government mid-term.

Local elections

The results of the 2016 local elections were spun for all they were worth by both sides within Labour. Opponents of Jeremy Corbyn made much of Labour failing to gain councillors in 2016, but in fairness this was because Ed Miliband had already won the low hanging fruit when those wards were last contested in 2012. There were some social media memes claiming Corbyn did well in the local elections in 2016 because he got a higher share of the seats contested than Blair won in 1995 or Cameron won in 2006 – this is misleading because a different group of seats are up at each set of local elections (Blair’s first local elections in 1995 were the all-out district councils, including lots of Tory territory; Cameron’s first in 2006 were largely London and the Metropolitan boroughs, so were on very Labour territory).

The fairest way of judging local election performance are the national equivalent shares of the vote calculated by Rallings and Thrasher – indeed, that’s the whole point of them. The Rallings and Thrasher figures are a projection of what the result would be if there were local elections across all of Britain, an attempt to even out the cyclical differences and make one year’s results comparable to other year’s results.

At the 2016 locals the R&T projection was CON 32%, LAB 33%, LDEM 14%, UKIP 12%; a one point lead for Labour. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have presented this as a sign of Labour doing well, on the grounds they beat the Conservatives. The TSSA have presented it as positive because it is a four point swing from the R&T projection of support at the local elections in 2015.

These claims are flawed. Looking at historical comparisons, Labour’s performance in the 2016 local elections was pretty mediocre compared to previous oppositions. The graph below shows the main opposition party’s lead over the government at mid-term local elections since 1981.

localelect

It is normal for the opposition party to win local elections mid-term and a lead of just one point is a pretty poor result comparatively. It is not, as some of Corbyn’s detractors have claimed, the worst local election performance for decades (Ed Miliband’s Labour did a little worse in 2011 and William Hague did significantly worse for the Tories in 1998) but it is the sort of local election performance heralding failure at the next general election. It’s the same lead that IDS got for the Tories in 2002, hardly a happy precedent.

As with voting intention polls, if you look at oppositions that went on to win the next election, they won mid-term local elections hands down. Cameron and Blair both consistently secured double-digit leads at local elections. Oppositions that were roughly neck-and-neck with the government in local elections (like Labour in 1984, 1988 and 2011, or the Tories in 2002) went on to be defeated at the following election.

In summary, the local election performance from Labour this year is not the unprecedented disaster Corbyn’s opponents have claimed – others have done worse – but neither is it in any way positive news. It is a mediocre result, with far more in common with those oppositions that have gone onto defeat than those oppositions who have ended up winning the next election.

Scotland, Wales and London

On the same day as the local elections were the elections to Scotland, Wales and London. These were a mixed bag for Labour – in Scotland they were again crushed by the SNP and trailed behind the Tories in terms of seats; in Wales they largely maintained their position, losing a single seat; in London Sadiq Khan won the mayoralty from the Conservatives. On the face of it this is one bad result, one mediocre result and one good.

Labour’s position in Scotland is dire, but I think it unfair to blame it upon Corbyn: the way politics has changed in Scotland since the referendum is probably beyond the control of any Labour leader, and it began long before Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Wales is a devolved assembly where presumably many voters would have been passing judgement upon Labour’s performance in governing Wales – though the results were pretty middle-of-the-road for Labour anyway.

In London it is difficult to know how much voting patterns are down to the party and how much they are down to the politicians running for the mayoralty – was it a victory for Labour, or for Sadiq? Either way, the result is somewhat less impressive that it looks. In the first round, Sadiq Khan was nine points ahead of Zac Goldsmith,typical of other recent London elections: in the 2015 general election Labour came top in London by 9 points; in the 2012 London assembly election Labour won by 9 points. The anomaly was the 2012 mayoral election, when Boris Johnson won through some combination of his electoral appeal and/or Ken Livingstone’s lack of it. London is now a Labour-leaning city, and winning by nine points is just repeating what Ed Miliband managed in 2015. That’s not to be snooty about Sadiq Khan’s achievement in winning the mayoralty back for Labour, but it doesn’t indicate any gain in support since 2015.

By-elections

The final bit of electoral evidence offered is Parliamentary by-elections. There have been four by-elections so far this Parliament and Labour won them all. However, all four by-elections were in seats that were already held by Labour at the 2015 election – three of them by extremely large majorities – so this is again not a particularly positive sign. Governments sometime lose mid-term by-elections, but it is the norm for oppositions to retain their seats in by-elections and nothing to get excited about.

Finally there are local government by-elections – including the bizarre case of Jeremy Corbyn citing a local parish by-election gain in Thanet. Citing local council by-elections is normally a festival of cherry picking – there are a handful or so each week and results vary wildly, so it is simple to pick out only those that paint a positive picture for a party. For example, in the three by-elections last week Labour’s vote dropped by between 7 and 11 percent, the week before the change in the Labour vote varied from a 7 point drop to an 11 point gain. If you take an overall view of Labour’s performance they seem to be holding their own, but not making any significant advance – of the 164 local by-elections so far this year (up to August 11th) Labour have made a net gain of 2 seats.

How deep is the hole?

Looking at Labour position in voting intention polls and their performance in actual elections since 2015 their position is poor rather than terrible. Putting aside Theresa May’s honeymoon bounce, running a few points behind the Conservatives is far from good, but better than the sort of horrific polling that the Tories endured in the nineties and early noughties. These are not the polling figures of a party on course to win the next general election, but neither do they point to imminent extinction.

Equally, while attempts to spin Labour’s mid-term election results as positive are unconvincing, so are claims they are uniquely terrible. They are on a par with the performance of the opposition under Iain Duncan Smith or Ed Miliband.

In terms of public support Labour’s current position is poor, but not exceptionally so. Should the Parliament run until 2020 there would normally be time for them to turn things around. The problem is how they do it. Labour’s polling on underlying questions like leadership and the economy should be far more worrying for them – their ratings there are terrible. Furthermore, for as long as they are hamstrung by internal fighting, there is no obvious way for them to improve them.

The purpose of this article isn’t to apportion blame – when a leader is at war with the MPs is it the leader’s fault for failing to lead, manage and win their support, or is it the MPs fault for failing to back the leader? It takes two to have an argument. I’m also deliberately not suggesting Labour would or would not do any better under Owen Smith (given how little known Smith is to the general public I am deeply sceptical about any polling evidence along those lines… besides, we don’t know what would happen with the left of Labour and all those new members if Jeremy Corbyn was removed)

My own view is that Labour’s current position in the polls is poor, but that it doesn’t show the full extent of their problems. Polls are, as ever, only a snapshot. They could get better… or they could get worse. What happens if Labour’s internal warfare drags on for another four years? What happens if there are defections, deselections, a split? How does Labour put across its message with most of its known faces refusing to serve? How on earth would Labour fight an election in this state? The root of Labour’s problem isn’t with the wider public, it’s within itself.


If Labour splits…

Over on the YouGov website I’ve written about an experiment we did looking at how the votes might fall in the event that the Labour party did split (the tabs are here). As I say in the article, this needs a thousand caveats – in what proportions has Labour split? Which party is the main opposition with all the publicity that implies? Who is the leader of the anti-Corbyn Labour party, and what sort of policies are they following? How did the split happen? Respondents don’t know, so this can only be a straw in the wind.

The important things to take away are these:

One – there is a sizeable chunk of the Labour vote who are brand loyalists, in the event of a split they would keep on voting for Labour, regardless of whether the left has split away or the right has split away. Just as the faction that is left controlling the Labour party will get the party’s property and assets, they’ll also get that base loyalist vote. Looking at this poll, it seems to be about 28% of the current Labour vote (so about 8% of the national vote)

Two – a lot of Labour voters would go with the left if the Corbyn was somehow ousted and his supporters left. A smaller group of current Labour voters would go with the right if they left, but they’d pick up more support from don’t knows, current Lib Dems and so on. A Labour splinter group of either side would start with around-about 13-14% (again, there are a thousand caveats to this, so don’t take that as set in stone).

Three – the sum total of the support which the two rival Labour parties would be slightly more than the current Labour party (between them they’d get about 34%, compared to Labour’s current polling figures that are around or just under 30%). Under a proportional voting system this might be a good thing. Under First Past the Post this would likely be disastrous for them, splitting the Labour vote and allowing the Conservatives (or UKIP, or whoever) to gain more seats from them. Exactly how bad it would be we cannot tell without knowing how their votes would be distributed geographically, whether individual Labour MPs would be able to retain the Labour vote in their own constituencies. It is likely to be pretty nasty though.

Finally, given the purpose of the exercise was to see what proportion of Labour voters would stick with the “Labour brand” in the event of a party split, we were faced with the problem of what to call the splitters in each scenario. We wouldn’t call them the “anti-Corbyn Labour party” or “Corbyn Labour party” or whatever as the whole point is that they would NOT be the Labour party, we had to give them a new made-up name. But what? In the end we tried it out with various different names to try and cancel out any effect from choosing a compelling or duff name – “Momentum”, “People’s Party”, “Moderates”, “Progress”, “Radicals”, “Social Democrats” – none of the names seemed to make much difference, whatever we called it, the splitters got around 13-15%.


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The Times tomorrow has fresh YouGov polling of Labour members suggesting Jeremy Corbyn is comfortably ahead of both challengers. Asked their first preference Jeremy Corbyn leads with 54% to Angela Eagle’s 21% and Own Smith’s 15%. Corbyn easily wins in a head-to-head run off against either – he beats Eagle by 58% to 34% and Smith by 56% to 34%.

The poll is of Labour members who joined before January 2016, so will be eligible to vote in the contest, but obviously doesn’t yet include people who sign up to be registered supporters in the short window this week. Sam Coates is tweeting more results.


ICM have a new poll in the Sun on Sunday with topline figures of CON 39%(+1), LAB 29%(-1), LDEM 9%(+1), UKIP 14%(-1), GRN 4%(nc). This is the first poll conducted since Theresa May became Prime Minister, so may be expected to show a typical “new leader” bounce in government support (when Brown took over in 2007 and Major took over in 1990 the governing party went from being behind to having double-digit leads). The Tory lead is up a little, but not outside the normal margin of error, that said ICM’s previous poll already had an eight point Tory lead, so they were already at a high base.

ICM also did some hypothetical voting intention questions asking about varous leader match-ups. A control question, asking how people would vote if Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn were still leader at the general election has voting intention figures of CON 43%, LAB 28%, suggesting either a significant positive effect from mentioning May or a negative effect from mentioning Corbyn.

Asking how people would vote if Owen Smith or Angela Eagle were Labour leader does not offer any improvement. With Eagle the figures would be CON 43%, LAB 26%. With Smith the figures would be CON 42%, LAB 27%. I should add a heavy caveat here – hypothetical polls like this are popular in advance of leadership elections, but how useful they are is a different question. Respondents don’t necessarily know what the alternative candidates stand for, what they will do or announce, how they may or may not change the party. I add those caveats when the alternative leaders are well known to the public, like Gordon Brown, Boris Johnson and so on. In the case of someone who is as unknown to the general public as Owen Smith, I expect most don’t know who he is or what he even looks like. Nevertheless, the figures will be influential in the debate – rightly or wrongly Corbyn’s supporters within the Labour party will now be able to say there is no polling evidence that his rivals would do any better.

Note that ComRes also have a poll in the Independent/Sunday Mirror, but they are not currently publishing any voting intention figures while they review methods.


I’ve had a break from the blog over the last few days, so I missed a YouGov poll of Labour members last week which suggested the first cracks in the hitherto solid support for Jeremy Corbyn among Labour members.

Back in May 72% of Labour members thought Corbyn was doing well, 27% badly; 60% wanted him to lead the party into the next election. Now 51% think he’s doing well, 48% badly and only 41% thought he should lead the party into the next election. However, for Labour MPs seeking to unseat him, their success of any leadership election is still questionable. 50% of members say they would probably still vote for Corbyn in a leadership election, 47% that they would probably not, and even that 47% relies upon finding a candidate who all those members unhappy with him could unite behind. Asked how they would vote in head-to-head contests between Corbyn and some potential challengers Corbyn still wins: he is ahead of Tom Watson by 50% to 39%, Angela Eagle by 50% to 40%, Dan Jarvis by 52% to 35%.

These figures are also just for fully paid up party members – an election would also include £3 supporters. Those £3 supporters from the last election would still break heavily for Corbyn, but in the case of an actual leadership election there would obviously be efforts by both sides to recruit new £3 supporters – we cannot tell how successful they’d be.

I can claim no particular insight into the mind of the Parliamentary Labour party, but I suspect one reason that none of Corbyn’s critics has yet triggered a leadership is that (as of last week at least) the polling of Labour party members did not suggest they could be sure of a victory in a leadership contest. Since then, of course, there has been another week of infighting and stand-off, and sooner or later there has to be some sort of resolution…

The tabs for the Labour leadership polling are here.