LABOUR could well be on course to win the next General Election. Analysis of polling data, from Opinium, gives them a figure of 10.6 million votes compared to the Tories with just eight million. These figures support the results of a number of recent opinion polls which have given Labour a lead of anything between five and 13 % over the Tories.
Whilst this is obviously good news for the Labour Party and will be seen by the right of the party as vindication for their entirely uninspiring performance recently, deeper analysis suggests it may not be quite the cause for celebration that many on the right of the party will want to suggest.
The Opinium Poll
The Opinium Poll was carried out for the Observer in mid-August. It found that, among its sample, 31% who said that they would vote Labour with only 22% committed to the Tory Party. This result is pretty much the same as that being found by most polling companies.
It is interesting, however, to consider what this actually means. Opinium ask two questions, who you would vote for in the case of a general election tomorrow, but also how you voted in 2019. Both questions, of course, rely on respondent honesty, but also memory. Nonetheless, it gives some indication of what is happening to the core votes of the main parties. For this analysis we are concentrating on just Labour and the Tories, as in every recent election they have received two-thirds or more of the vote between them. For the pedants, 2010 was just below two-thirds.
Despite the formal position that the UK is a multi-party system at general elections, it is clear it is a two-horse race, and this has been the case for over 100 years. Whilst it is possible that a third party could emerge (and this is not to ignore Northern Ireland or Scotland which do break the mould), the reality is that the winner of the next election, in 2024, will almost certainly be either the Tories or Labour.
What we can see from this graphic is that, for example, among those who say they voted Conservative in 2019, 53% would still vote Conservative in an election tomorrow. Among Labour voters, 77% are still loyal to Labour. And among Lib Dem voters, only 49% would do the same tomorrow. In other words, the Labour vote, despite what many of us on the left may feel about Starmer, is remaining fairly stable. Where the election may be won and lost, however, is not whether you are holding on to your supporters, though it appears the Tories are not inspiring theirs, but rather where the undecideds eventually put their cross.
It’s by no means certain that, because you voted for a party in one election, you will vote for it in the next one. So, if 77% of 2019 Labour voters are intending to vote Labour in 2024, that is particularly good news for Labour, as it gives them a healthy base on which to build. This will probably not be what those on the left will want to hear. But, maintaining your core is only part of the issue. The figure that we should pay some attention to is the one in grey, those who say they ‘don’t know’. This could mean a variety of things, but it is interesting that 22% of 2019 Tory voters are, as yet, undecided. The trick for Labour would be to get those voters in their camp. A trick, unfortunately, that with the possible exception of 1997, Labour have been decidedly poor at performing.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these figures are correct. Given that we know how many votes each party received in 2019, it is possible, using these figures, to calculate how many votes they could receive in 2024, and this is where things get quite exciting for Labour.
Before we get over-excited or you decide to tell me that this is highly speculative, let me confess that these numbers are simply based on one poll and are, indeed, highly speculative. But they do give a very stark indication that, whilst Labour appears to be ahead, this is largely due to the missing Tory vote rather than a ringing endorsement of their current policies, or indeed their current leader. Where those 4.6 million votes end up, the majority of them prior Tory supporters, might hold the key to who gets into Number Ten.
Labour’s past performance
As things stand, whilst it could certainly be argued that Starmer is maintaining the 2019 vote, there is no compelling evidence that the total votes will increase. How this translates into seats is another question and outside the scope of this analysis.
Centrists are very quick to point out that Labour’s performance in 2019 was its worst in 35 years. That is not true, though you will see it repeated in the national press. What that same press and their followers on Labour’s right do not point out is that, in terms of overall performance, Jeremy Corbyn can certainly hold his head high.
Whilst no Labour leader, with the possible exception of Tony Blair, has received the type of carte blanche support accorded to Tory leaders by a, largely, Tory-owned press, the amount of column inches given over to destroying Jeremy Corbyn was remarkable, particularly in 2019 where, not only the national press, but also the main national broadcaster were joined by disillusioned and, frankly, treacherous right wing Labour MPs encouraging the public to vote for the Tories. Moreover, as Critical Mass has pointed out previously, they used a concocted antisemitism campaign to smear his name.
Yet, as the graphic at the head of this article shows, his performance, even in 2019, was not one of collapse. Indeed, the vote count of 10.2 million was higher than every election since 2001, bar 2017 in which Corbyn’s rejuvenated Labour received Labour’s second highest vote in 35 years.
What was the worst aspect of the result for Labour since 1983 was the number of seats obtained. There is no arguing with that evidence: 202 seats is lower than the amount achieved by every Labour leader since, and including, Michael Foot. But what does this tell us exactly? Was it that the British public had rejected socialism, as the right always claim if the left gets close to power but fail to achieve it? Or, was it that the Tories successfully targeted seats where Brexit could undermine the Labour vote because of a position foisted on the party by the same centrists now crowing that Starmer is more successful than Corbyn and that Corbyn was an absolute disaster.
It is worth reminding ourselves of Labour’s past. Every Labour leader since 1997, including Tony Blair, lost seats. Indeed, if 2019 was the worst performance ever because Labour lost 60 seats, then what was 2010 when a former Chancellor made PM took over a Labour government and, in the election, lost 96 seats and, as the table shows, nearly a million votes? Every Labour leader, including Blair and Brown lost votes. Whilst 1997 was an extraordinary year, so was 2017. But, instead of seeing this as something to build upon, the Forde Report makes it absolutely clear that the Labour hierarchy (including a good many Labour MPs now on the front benches) saw it as a call to arms in which the left had to be defeated.
Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn one thing is certain, the corruption that has been a feature of this Conservative administration would not have occurred in an administration with Corbyn at the helm.
We cannot assess Labour without considering the Tories. This table shows the number of votes and the number gained or lost for each election since 1983.
In 2019 Labour lost 2.6 million votes, but where did they go? According to popular Labour right mythology, Labour voters defected to the Tories. But, as the table shows clearly, the Tories gained only 190,711 votes. This suggests that Labour voters, far from becoming Tories, decided to stay at home. This is an important point. Labour strategy tends to be decided on the prejudices of those at the helm rather than any objective analysis of past performance.
In 1997, Labour’s greatest triumph, the Tories lost almost 4.5 million voters. Labour only gained just short of 2 million. The following election Labour lost nearly 3 million. So much for the triumph of New Labour. But, hang on, I hear the centrists refrain, we won three elections. True, but to understand what was happening you need to look at the figures. Labour won two elections (2001 and 2005) that they should have lost. Anything shy of 13 million votes would not have won an election up to that point. The only way that could happen was with the collapse of the Tory vote. Between 1997 and 2001 the Tories lost 5.5 million votes. Those votes did not, as popular rightist mythology would have you believe, go to the Labour Party, they simply stayed home.
Are we about to repeat 1997?
In 1995, at about the same point in the electoral cycle we are currently, Labour had poll leads averaging around 25%, with some polls giving them up to 39% leads. Labour is currently celebrating being within nine points.
If you go back two years prior to the 2015 General Election when Ed Miliband was Labour leader up against David Cameron, Labour was anywhere between seven and 11% ahead. This was an election, you no doubt recall, that the Tories won reasonably convincingly.
There is a difference between 1997, 2015 and now. In 1997 the Labour Party was led by a man who, rightly or wrongly, appeared youthful, dynamic and charismatic. There was a sense in which New Labour was something entirely different. By election day it was no longer a case of whether Labour would win, but by how much?
There is a similarity to now though, and it is one Labour’s right might want to emphasise. In 1997 the Tories had lost a popular and charismatic leader in Thatcher. Whilst those of us on the left might have hated her with a passion, the fact is she was a leader who inspired the support of many including some who might otherwise have voted Labour.
The similarity with Johnson should not be overly stated, but, like Thatcher, he is a leader that many people find likeable and charismatic. Thatcher perhaps was less likeable, but was certainly credible. Replacing Johnson will not be easy for the Tories. Many of the Tory faithful did not want the serial liar and adulterer to leave office, despite clearly being unfit for office. He will be difficult to replace and neither Liz Truss, nor Rishi Sunak have anything like the same personality to carry them through. This is good news for Labour. Possibly.
In 2015 Labour, despite efforts to present Ed Miliband as a new broom, felt like the fag end of New Labour. Cameron managed to appear youthful and vigorous and outmanoeuvred Miliband at every step. Moreover, the press, who may not be the total arbiters of who wins but continue to have more of a say than is healthy in a democracy, took every opportunity to undermine Miliband in a way they had never done to Rupert Murdoch’s buddy Tony Blair.
Can Keir Starmer inspire people?
According to Opinium, when asked to choose between Keir Starmer and Liz Truss as Prime Minister, 31% chose Starmer, against 23% who chose Truss. What is clear though is that neither Starmer nor Truss have the overwhelming support of the British public. Some 36% said ‘neither’.
The problem is compounded for Starmer when you look at the figures for Conservative and Labour voters. Amongst 2019 Conservative voters 44% prefer Truss, which is not a great surprise, though from her perspective fairly disappointing. Meanwhile, whilst Labour voters do support Starmer, 28% prefer neither. Indeed, nearly half of all voters either preferred neither of them or didn’t know. In some ways these popularity polls make little real difference. Party leaders are not chosen by opinion poll but by their party members.
However, it is worth pointing out that for Labour to win, not only must the Tories lose voters, but those voters must see Starmer as a credible alternative. On this evidence, Tories are no more convinced by Starmer than Labour voters are by Truss. And, with nearly a third preferring somebody else it could point to problems ahead for both of them.
So, can Labour win?
Of course. Nothing is set in stone. Yet. But, unlike in 1997, Starmer does not have the endorsement of the establishment press and media. Whilst those of us on the left like to think we can counteract them with our social media activities, very obviously that is not the case. People still rely on the newspapers and the BBC for their source of political news. And, as I have said repeatedly, most people do not really think much about politics unless it is something that directly involves them. Which is where the cost of living crisis could help to deliver a Labour victory. Despite Labour’s incoherent policy and refusal to support workers taking action to defend their pay and conditions, the Tories are presiding over a period which feels both chaotic and devoid of hope. Such circumstances should prove beneficial to the opposition and, unless the Tories have something up their sleeves to give the impression not only that they give a damn but that they are capable of doing something about it, Labour should maintain its support amongst its own voters.
The problem will be whether Labour can eat into the Tory vote in a significant way, something that they have failed to do in every single election, including 1997. Tories vote Tory because, essentially, the Tories are a reflection of their prejudices. When they do not appear competent, Tory voters are as likely to stay at home as vote for an alternative, unless the alternative appeals to their prejudices even more. As UKIP and the Brexit Party did, for example.
Will Labour win? On this evidence, it seems unlikely. They have to hope that Liz Truss is incapable of inspiring the nearly one quarter of Conservative voters who are not currently in the mood to give them a further opportunity to ruin the country on their behalf. And, the big question, even if Labour were to win, would that make much difference to the state of the country? That is a question for a future analysis.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.