Corbyn and the Labour Party – taking the longer view?

17 February 2016

Glen O'Hara  - Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Oxford Brookes University

Historic polling comparisons highlight the party’s challenges ahead of 2020

The last few months have seen the Labour Party seemingly stumble from crisis to crisis. A rolling and engrossing bad news story but one that has been hard to place in context.  We can consider the impact of this first period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership upon Labour’s support by considering historic polling data.  In doing so it is important to treat all such numbers with extreme caution.  Polling has changed out of all recognition since the polling debacle at the 1992 General Election, and is now in the throes of another re-evaluation following the large gap between pre-election polls and the result last May. Despite that, they are the only numbers we have – and they are broadly indicative, even if they cannot be taken as a precise reflection of public opinion.

If we look at periods when Labour has been in opposition between 1970 and the present day, and zoom in on the party’s performance nine months after each General Election – the same stage we are at now – we can consider Labour’s current support in a long-run perspective. On average, current polls suggest Labour is 7.6% behind the Conservatives.  In February 1971 Labour was 7.5% ahead of the Conservatives; in January 1980 they led by 8.2%.  During February 1984, they were 5.7% behind the Conservatives and in February 1988 they trailed by 5.9%, while in December 1992 they were ahead by a huge 13.6%.  Labour in opposition has not, in the modern age, experienced quite such the bad scores they are now enduring– and at most comparative points they have been doing much better.

The most recent comparison is probably more precise. In February 2011 Labour was 6.3% ahead of the Conservatives – a performance that is 13.9% better than they are doing now, even before polling organisation have completed their internal reviews of what they got wrong last year (a process that is likely to reduce Labour’s ratings further), and at a time when some telephone pollsters – ICM in particular – have admitted that their sampling techniques still overstate Labour’s likely vote share.

So Labour is in uncharted waters. The question, based on current polling, then becomes: how bad might Labour’s performance in 2020 be?  Their current position, 7% lower than the same stage in the 2010-15 Parliament, suggests Labour in 2020 may receive a share of the vote in the mid-20s if its vote decline follows the same path, as well as the Conservative receiving a share of the vote perhaps in the 40s.  Further, if the Government succeeds in reducing the number of House of Commons seats to 600 on a basis of more ‘equal’ populations, reducing the number of smaller urban and Welsh seats Labour can hope to hold on to, they might be reduced – if things really do get that bad – to just 130-140 MPs.

There are two historic benchmarks here. The first is in terms of numbers of seats.  Labour’s worst defeat of the modern era is unquestionably 1935, when they won just 154 seats (if we exclude the 1931 contest when Labour was reduced to 52 MPs following the party leader Ramsay MacDonald’s decision to join the Conservatives in a National Government).  The second benchmark if we are looking at historically poor performances is the 15.3% that Labour received in the 2009 European Parliamentary elections – a result which saw it reduced to third place behind the United Kingdom Independence Party, and was by some way its worst UK-level national performance in the era of universal suffrage.

It seems almost inconceivable that Labour in 2020 will plumb the depths represented by that second result. There is no really convincing alternative on the left.  The eclipse of the Liberal Democrats as a credible national electoral force helps Labour enormously.  If the Lib Dems still had 50-60 parliamentary seats, and were still led by a left-leaning social democrat such as Charles Kennedy, then Labour might already be suffering mass defections – of voters, and probably of MPs too, in a situation analogous to the Social Democrats’ split from Labour in 1981.  Results for the Green Party in council by-elections, and the party’s stagnation in the polls, since the General Election suggest that this will be one of the only sources of new voters that Labour will be able to count on.  Many left-wing voters who had turned to the Greens in despair at Labour’s apparent compromise with economic orthodoxy and austerity seem to have found a congenial home in the new-look Labour Party.

Falling to 154 seats – as in 1935 – would seem less than likely, though if the Conservatives do achieve their boundary reforms it is by no means impossible. The polls probably exaggerated Labour’s ratings throughout the last Parliament, so reducing the size of the swing they are now experiencing as against 2011 (though only perhaps by two or three per cent).  If Labour’s vote falls, it will also become harder to squeeze, leaving behind more culturally- or ideologically-committed voters; the recent by-election in Oldham West, which Labour gained with a surprisingly strong majority of nearly 11,000 and an increase in its share of the vote of over seven per cent, is more than enough to see that effect working.

Of course, all of this is – so far – speculation. It is just possible (though it seems unlikely) that Labour might be able to mobilise non- or ex-voters, and regain the support of disillusioned left-wing citizens who have broken away to support the Scottish National Party in Scotland, or Plaid Cymru in Wales.  The huge number of elections due in May 2016 – for Police Commissioners, the London and Bristol Mayoralties, as well as for local councils, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly – will tell us much more.  Only by comparing those results with the last time those contests were fought will we be able to see whether Labour’s apparently poor polling performance compared to previous Parliaments is a statistical artefact, or a real reflection of reduced public support for Labour under Corbyn and its adoption of a more left-wing policy platform.

The best conclusion from the evidence right now, however, is easy to summarise. Unless nothing changes radically, the best Labour can hope for in 2020 is another defeat that confines the Conservatives to only a very small majority, or in the absolute best case scenario limits them to forming a minority government that has to bargain with other parties to get its legislation through.  Neither case currently seems particularly likely: any historically-based projection must be for a heavy Labour defeat, extending in the very worst case to a rout that may take the party back to the level of representation it last had to suffer in 1935.  Many of Labour’s members and supporters seem resigned to, or even bullish about, that fate – believing that they can and should aim at shifting the terms of debate even if out of power for a generation.  It remains to be seen if the defeats and poll deficits that seem likely to occur during this Parliament will change that view.

Glen's blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past, and can be followed on Twitter at @gsoh31

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