Election notebook #13: Why is Labour doing better in the polls than I expected?

by Stephen Tall on May 27, 2017

No sooner had I clicked ‘publish’ on my last notebook, cavalierly asserting I couldn’t be bothered with the polls this election ‘because the gulf between the Tories and Labour this time means that it actually is pointless’, than along comes that YouGov shocker showing the gap cut to just 5%.

I’ll eat Paddy’s hat if that’s the result, but, still, the race does appear to be tightening. And that’s upended the expectations of many, me included, who reckoned Labour would drift further down in the polls as the voters neared decision time; and that faced between the stark choice of strong-and-stable Theresa May or pro-IRA, pro-the-cause-of-the-IRA Jeremy Corbyn, there could be only one outcome.

So why was I wrong? Well, to be fair to myself, I don’t think anyone would have predicted quite how poor the Conservative campaign has been. (By which I mean the so-called ‘air-war’, fought in the media, portraying your leader and your policies in the best possible light. It’s still quite possible that in the largely invisible ‘ground game’, fought door-to-door and increasingly by direct-mail and Facebook, the Tories are still utterly trouncing Labour.)

In her determination to win a mandate for controversial reforms (‘dementia tax’) and disown the Cameron brand (ending the ‘tax lock’), Theresa May appears to have completely forgotten to put in any genuinely popular policies that people will rally to. Unless she thought ‘bring back fox hunting’ was really what the denizens of Erdington were longing to hear.

Labour, by contrast, have had absolutely no compunction about promising loadsamoney in middle-class subsidies (abolishing tuition fees) and gesture politics (re-nationalisation), right, left and centre. Or, more accurately, left, further left, and hard-left. It’s easy to promise the earth when you know there’s no way in the world you’ll win. But — surprise, surprise — it turns out populism might be a bit popular.

The fact that Labour has found no money to reverse the genuinely swingeing and cruel benefits cuts the Conservatives have committed to in the next parliament, and that their manifesto is less re-distributive than the Lib Dems’, is something their supporters appear quite happy to overlook. After all, they don’t expect Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10, either, so this is guilt-free indulgence politics.

Credit where it’s due, though, Labour’s defiantly confident campaign has rallied its core support and prevented much switching to the Lib Dems — which I’d thought would happen to some extent, with hardened progressive Remainers using this last-chance vote to try and block Brexit.

But it turns out that what we always knew to be true is true: that the voters just aren’t that animated by Europe. They weren’t in 2013 when David Cameron promised that second referendum. And they’re not now Tim Farron is promising a third referendum. They’ve always thought there are bigger issues — the economy, public services — and they’re probably right.

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There was another reason I assumed Labour would have a bad campaign: the hard-right press, aka the Mail, Sun, Telegraph, the three big mid-market, tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. Their support for Theresa May has been slavish, their denigration of Jeremy Corbyn absolute, over the past year; another few weeks of such publicity and she’d triumph, he’d be buried.

daily mailHowever, what this campaign has shown (no matter what the final result) is that there is a limit to the media’s impact. No matter that the Mail praised the prime minister to the skies for her ‘utterly candid and unashamedly moral’ move on the dementia tax, the policy tanked, forcing a humiliating U-turn which has badly damaged Mrs May’s reputation for matter-of-fact competence.

This isn’t to suggest the right-wing media isn’t hugely important. It is. Brexit is evidence of the impact decades of lies and half-truths can exert on the public mood. The newspapers do, to a large extent, create the climate. But they don’t (always) make the weather.

What happened with the dementia tax, just as with the poll tax, is that the public recoiled from a basic unfairness. With the poll tax, it was the “duke and the dustman” paying the same charge. With the dementia tax, it was the health lottery of which disease (immediate, short-term or long-term) might kill you.

Not even the right-wing press could spin that one. There’s a lesson there for the liberal-left in how to persuade voters, without throwing up our hands in despair that the newspapers rule all.