The Tories’ EU divide is making life harder for Corbyn’s opponents

The Tories’ EU divide is making life harder for Corbyn’s opponents


He should comfortably do well enough in May now

The honeymoon is over. Two polls within a week without a Tory lead – one level-pegging from ICM and then Thursday’s from YouGov reporting Labour ahead by a point – are testament to the public disapproval of internal party divisions. They might also be testament to Labour’s invisibility at the moment, but then why intrude when your opponents are tearing themselves apart?

In fact, the divisions within the Conservatives are probably less serious than those within Labour, yesterday’s resignation notwithstanding. Once the referendum is over there may well be the question of ‘what next’ to answer, both on European policy and perhaps in terms of party leadership but the deepest chasm will have been resolved by the public: In or Out will have won and individual preferences will have to be set aside to respect the electorate’s decision. Similarly, the IDS-Osborne rift can be sorted with decisive personnel management.

Labour, by contrast, are still deeply divided on economic, social and foreign policy between the leadership and membership on the one hand, and the PLP and Labour voters on the other. For most voters, Europe is not important. Once – if – the Conservatives stop banging on about it, the divisions will largely fade into the background. By contrast, questions on the economy, public services and the nature of the country we live in are front and foremost in the minds of floating voters and Corbyn’s answers to at least two of those will trigger warning lights.

In fact, there is surely enormous opportunity for whichever party can first get its act together. You would think that current conditions would be close to ideal for UKIP, yet their poll shares are not greatly different from the general election: 11% with ICM, 16% with YouGov. If there is a referendum boost, it’s nothing to write home about. Similarly, the Lib Dems seem unable to fill the growing gap in the centre despite being freed from government; publicity for the sometime third party now being very hard to come by. Council by-elections give some cause for hope but the GE VI polls show their support stubbornly stuck in single figures.

All of which raises the question as to whether the drop-off in Conservative support is a step-change that’s happened or a trend still ongoing.

Before we get to the referendum, we have the bumper crop of May elections. Until this recent polling shift, those looked as if they might be bad enough for Labour’s Corbyn-sceptics to justify moving against the leader. Not so now.

That said, as things stand, they’re hardly looking rosy for the Red team. The headline figures will be determined by gains and losses and the crucial question there is not what the relative Con-Lab gap is now, or how it’s changed from last month, but how it’s changed from four years ago when these seats were last fought (or five years ago in the case of Scotland and Wales).

There are of course two main problems in comparing the figures between now and then. Firstly, the polls themselves have changed methodology and secondly, people vote differently at local and devolved elections than in general elections. We can deal with the second point relatively easily: as long as we’re comparing like-for-like, it doesn’t particularly matter which series we use unless there are particular local circumstances (which there are in London, Wales and Scotland). The English council and PCC results should broadly follow the national GE VI trend. For that matter, with less charismatic candidates, London too should mirror the GE intentions more.

That ought to be good news for Sadiq Khan. In a Labour-trending city, a reversion to the national picture combined with a sizable drop in the Con vote ought to make him a very clear favourite. The likely dynamics of the next six weeks should only reinforce that situation. Even a by-election in Tooting wouldn’t help the Tories much despite the seat trending Blue: the likely polling day would be coincident with the referendum.

Across England, the situation might be less rosy. Comparing this week’s ICM poll with that of April 2012, the changes in vote share are:

Con +3, Lab -5, LD -7, UKIP +8

To reiterate, some of that swing might well be the result of methodological changes though that depends on when the polls became divergent from reality in the last parliament. Even so, those swings would likely result in Tory gains running into the low hundreds, UKIP also making modest gains and the Lib Dems suffering further losses. Labour would become the first opposition to be net losers since 1982.

Fortunately for Corbyn, such a reverse would be likely to be overshadowed by the results in London and Scotland. The returns north of the border are again likely to be disastrous for Labour but Corbyn can legitimately point out that the ship struck the iceberg there well before he became commodore of Labour’s fleet. Wales, as so often, will probably be ignored by the London media.

Of course, Labour’s position in the polls – and hence the May elections – could easily improve further; six more weeks of Tory fratricide is unlikely to improve the party’s rating. But either way, Corbyn looks highly likely to achieve what’s necessary to avoid a concerted campaign to remove him. That matters. By the time of next year’s local elections, Labour’s conference will have had time to change the leadership election rules.

David Herdson

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