In the face of tough current polling Labour needs to hold its nerve
Lots of hay is being made in social media today about the ICM poll showing Labour being 17 points behind the Tories. I’m going to argue that Labour should avoid a knee jerk reaction and not change course. Labour should hold its nerve through what is a very turbulent time in the political narrative at the moment.
First, it’s worth noting that ICM has consistently been the worst pollster for Labour — in the last two months the five worst polls for Labour having all been ICM. Given that we don’t know which pollster is “more correct” ever since they rejigged their weightings after the general election it wouldn’t be sensible to argue that this alone disproves the accuracy of the poll, but we should expect ICM polls to be worse for Labour than other polls. The best thing we can do is study how this ICM poll differs from the previous ICM poll (conduct about 2 weeks ago, showing a 15% lead for the Tories) to understand where this 2% swing to the Tories has come from.
Examining the crosstabs we can see that the bulk of the change has not been from more 2015 Labour voters switching to the Tories — but a change in the relative number of undecideds. In the previous ICM poll the 2015 voters for Both Labour and the Tories stood at 15%, but in the current poll the 2015 Tory undecideds has dropped to 11% and the 2015 Labour undecideds has risen to 24%. Indeed it’s a common theme in polls at the moment that the Tories have a ‘harder’ vote than Labour at the moment relative to their 2015 performance. Going back to April/May when Labour was doing better in the polls (and even showed a lead in three YouGov polls in April) we can see that Labour enjoyed parity or a small lead over the Tories in 2015 voter retention. The danger for Labour moving to the right as some self described “moderates” suggest is that actually this will worsen Labour’s position with previous Labour voters and fail to win over Conservative voters that seem pretty happy with the current government.
The decline in Labour’s voter retention figures coincides with two obvious events. The EU Referendum and the attempted coup against Corbyn. Whether it’s more down to sceptical Labour leave voters or those unimpressed with a lack of unity from the PLP is anyone’s guess right now. But I would argue that hardening the Labour line on Brexit/immigration would be a mistake. Labour is popular amongst remain voters and could never hope to ‘out Brexit’ the Tories or UKIP and would risk losing more support than it could hope to gain. A better strategy is to maintain a consistent and credible policy and seek to benefit from a shift in public mood away from Brexit as the realities of the ‘hard Brexit’ strategy the government is pursuing become clearer. In the same vein the Corbyn-sceptic (and worse) parts of the PLP need to show unity to reassure the 2015 Labour voters that have been put off by the internal fighting.
The other major issue that Labour consistently struggle with is trust over the economy. New Labour, especially Gordon Brown, won trust over the economy but lost it after the financial crash and have been struggling ever since. The Corbyn cabinet has one big benefit — people like McDonnell can point to the fact that they were right over the big ticket mistakes that were made during the New Labour years and refused to accept the subsequent Tory narrative of Labour ‘overspending’ and ‘overborrowing’. Yet the public do still have a general mistrust of the left over economic matters. Labour needs to keep hammering the fact that after 6 year of austerity the new chancellor has u-turned on much of the ‘long term economic plan’. Undermining the confidence of the public in the Conservative party’s economic competence in general is essential. May and Hammond have inherited a poisoned economic chalice in the form of Brexit and it seems almost inevitable that as things go bad the public’s confidence in their personal economic competence will suffer. As such, Labour’s best strategy is not to chase the current winds of public opinion but to position ourselves where it is likely to end up in in the medium term by putting forward our distinct alternative focusing on heavily investment and tax fairness.
The fact is that the immediate debate is on difficult ground for Labour. The solution to that isn’t to triangulate on these issues and lose ground with the base; but to strengthen on the issues that Labour are strong on, and make a principled case to oppose the current policies of the government. When this government starts to create a bad taste and lose trust then Labour must be there with a real alternative.