A recovery for Corbyn is no foregone conclusion; it may get worse for Labour
This is not a prediction as such. There are plenty of counter-arguments to the points I’m about to make, some of which will almost certainly turn out to be true. It would be equally possible to write an article with 10 reasons why the Tory lead may well slide again. All the same, to keep things simple, let’s keep the focus on this side of the equation (not least because that provides a consistent baseline against which we can later argue).
That said, before the election began, there was a lot of chatter among Labour supporters that everything would be all right come election night, just as it turned out to be in 2017. Of course, Labour did lose that election, finishing well behind the Tories in seats and votes and – crucially – failing to form the government (which is the only true measure of who ‘won’). But they did gain seats, put on a very impressive number of votes on 2015, and eliminate the Tory majority.
Can Labour do it again? It is of course possible – so many things are – but here are ten reasons why they might well not:
1. Labour is polling really poorly: worse than 2017
It’s true that there’s a lot of variation among pollsters at the moment but one thing they all agree on is that Labour’s doing badly. They’ve not polled top-side of 30% with anyone since before the European elections, YouGov had them at 21% this week and five firms reported them at 24% or below during October. Six weeks out from the 2017 election, Labour’s worst score was 24% and in the month before, only two firms had them sub-25; by the end of the month, Labour was mainly in the high-20s. The relative position is about two points worse – and that 2017 performance was the worst for any main opposition party.
2. Corbyn is also record-breakingly unpopular
What is true of Labour’s vote share is mirrored in Corbyn’s personal rating. Corbyn set a new record for any Leader of the Opposition in Mori’s 40+ year series, recording a net satisfaction rating of -60 in September – and then repeated the feat in the October poll. At the same point prior to the 2017 poll, his equivalent rating was -35. Other pollsters asking similar questions tend to find only 15-21% positive support, though the negative (and hence, net) figure tends to depend on the question and the options offered. But even his best figure with any pollster since April is still worse than that -35 score from 2017. The tweet-thread, from @james_bowley gives an excellent overview of how Corbyn’s rating has declined over the last 30 months.
3. Johnson isn’t very popular either but he still has a sizeable lead
This is perhaps a case of having your cake and eating it but there’s method in there. At the time Theresa May called the 2017 election, her personal rating (again, using the Mori series) was +19. Johnson’s is currently +2, which is itself a major bounce from his September score of -18 and presumably a significant part of the recent increased Tory lead. What this means is that Johnson will find it harder to fall as far during the campaign in the way that May did – especially as much of his support is based on Brexit, from Leave voters and little is likely to change on that front. He may have a lower ceiling but his support is probably stronger – which means Johnson is likely to retain a sizeable lead on the leadership rating question unless Corbyn can very substantially improve his score.
4. The campaign is far more likely to be dominated by Brexit than 2017
Two and a half years ago, Brexit was a distant prospect; now, it’s clearly not. The lines are much clearer between the parties and the deadline much closer. Voters are likely to weigh the issue more heavily (and indeed, going by ‘issues’ polling, are doing so). While other issues will get an airing – and Labour is doing its best on that score – the Tories, Lib Dems and Brexit Party all have an interest on keeping as much focus as possible on the EU withdrawal question, and that’s a question which Labour’s answer to is badly defined and easy to mock.
5. The Tory campaign is likely to be far better than in 2017
The Tories’ effort in 2017 is widely regarded as the worst election campaign ever. I don’t remember Labour’s 1983 effort but whatever the absolute ranking, it was a shocker. The PM and party leader hid in a cupboard, the manifesto couldn’t have been better designed to upset many key Tory voters, there was no properly defined campaign hierarchy leading to confusion, contradiction and a campaign strategy that became hopelessly misaligned with reality. We can reasonably expect that Johnson and co will not repeat these mistakes.
6. Corbyn is not as good a campaigner as he’s given credit for
Jeremy Corbyn’s reputation as a campaigner is based on three elections: the 2015 and 2016 Labour leadership contests, and the 2017 general elections. In the first of these, he won heavily against the odds; in the second, he won at a canter; in the third, he led Labour back from the brink to near-victory. Except a lot of that didn’t have much to do with him.
The Labour leadership contests were fought with an extremely favourable electorate to the far left. That few people noticed this before the election started doesn’t change the fact. Corbyn also benefitted from particularly lacklustre opponents. Then, in 2016, he didn’t actually do all that well. Against a lightweight opponent (unlike 2015), he only put on 2%. Had the votes from the third- and fourth-placed candidates in 2015 been redistributed to enable a like-for-like comparison, chances are his share would have declined despite an even more favourable electorate. And then there was 2017 which, as noted, the Tories helpfully provided Corbyn with a ladder to climb out of the hole that he himself had dug. The best that can be said for him is that he has an assured confidence that his strategy is right and he tends not to panic – which is a good thing unless the strategy isn’t right.
7. The Lib Dems won’t be talking about gay sex for four weeks
You might not remember the Lib Dems’ 2017 election and chances are they won’t want you to. They went into the election with 8 MPs and a poll rating barely out of single figures, and were struggling for any media attention. What little they did achieve was wasted when the leader, Tim Farron, a committed Christian, failed to give a clear answer on the sinfulness of gay sex – which resulted both in the issue dogging him for the rest of the campaign and also crowding out what little other coverage his party might have gained.
2019 is unlikely to see any sort of repeat. The Lib Dems have been on a roll since the European elections, having gained a host of MPs through defections and having more than doubled their poll share. With a distinctive line on Brexit and a willingness to attack Labour as well as the Tories, Labour cannot assume a clear field on the left-of-centre.
8. Scottish and Welsh Labour are doing even worse than in 2017
Scottish Labour had a catastrophic 2015 election and recovered only slightly in 2017, gaining six seats for a total of 7. That was with 27% of the vote. The last five proper Scottish polls for Westminster (i.e. not counting sub-sections of GB-wide polls), all have Labour below 20% – worse even than in 2017. On those figures, Labour is set for losses again in Scotland.
Likewise Wales. For so long a Labour fiefdom, that dominance now seems broken. The last two Welsh polls have placed the Tories first; the last three have had Labour at 25% or below (compared with the 49% they polled in 2017). The saving grace in Wales is that unlike Scotland, the opposition is fragmented: there’ll be no wipeout on these figures. All the same, the polling is very ugly.
9. Labour is more internally divided than at any point under Corbyn
One feature of the Corbyn leadership has been how tight-knit the leadership group around him has been since 2015. Despite the hostility of the PLP, defections, and poor poll ratings and elections (the 2017GE is the only real success: the locals, by-elections and Euros have been consistently bad), the group closest to him – both elected and appointed – have covered his back. But recently, divisions have begun to open up with rumours of a rift with McDonnell, the sidelining of Karie Murphy, and the departure of Andrew Fisher. Parties struggling in elections tend to turn on themselves and while Labour avoided that in 2017, the scope for it this year seems higher should things not begin to pick up.
10. Labour’s front bench is weak
The election cannot be fronted by Corbyn alone. He needs to be supported by his colleagues and with two exceptions – McDonnell and Starmer – they are not very effective media performers. The likes of Burgon, Long-Bailey or Abbott already have reputations for being gaffe-prone or robotic in interviews and several others are similarly weak. The extent to which Tory divisions and failures during the last parliament weren’t capitalised on is as good a measure as any. But in an election the media – social and mainstream – will happily make a story of a cock-up, which lightens the tone from the grind of the predictable.
As I say, there are counter-arguments as to why the Tories might do badly or why Labour can overcome these weaknesses. All the same, as PB’s Kieran Pedley put it the other day, Labour seems like a team which having been 3-0 down in last year’s cup final and ended up losing only on penalties, is far too complacent about being 3-0 down again in this year’s match. Their strategy is now clear on how to recover: repeat 2017 but bigger and better; ignore Brexit, promise huge spending commitments and wage class war. It’s a very bold gamble to talk about what you want to talk about rather than the electorate’s priorities when the people already don’t much trust you. Maybe it will work but there are many reasons to think it won’t.