Individual opinion polls tend to be awarded a level of attention that is wholly disproportionate to their actual significance. At every election or referendum, there is usually one, seemingly stray poll that goes against the grain and sparks intense debate. And so it was this week when a lone poll appeared to suggest the beginning of a surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Coming after 18 straight double-digit leads for the Conservative Party, the poll by ICM put Labour only seven points behind Boris Johnson’s party, on 34% of the vote. It is the highest share of the vote for Labour that has been recorded by any pollster since early May. That it marks only a two-point increase in Labour’s vote share since ICM’s previous poll, and so is within the margin of error, has largely been ignored. That it suggests that Boris Johnson could fail in his quest to win an overall majority has garnered much more attention.
But why the surprise? The reality is that ever since the campaign began, public support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has been on the rise.
In the days before MPs voted for the election to take place, Labour averaged just 23% of the vote. By the time that Parliament had been dissolved and the official campaign had begun this had already jumped to 28%. Today, Labour’s average is about to reach 31%.
Certainly, there are still some in-built disadvantages for Labour. For one thing, if this really is a ‘Brexit election’ then the Remain camp is still strongly divided. Labour is attracting less than half of the Remain vote while in only four months the percentage of Leavers who are backing the Conservatives has rocketed from 39 to 73%.
And then there are the parties’ 2017 electorates. While Corbyn and Labour are today only retaining about seven in ten people who voted for them two years ago, Boris Johnson and his party are today retaining 83% of their 2017 electorate.
But do not fall into the trap of assuming that this picture will not change because, in my view it probably will.
Aside from the slow but steady increase in Labour’s vote, ICM is not the only pollster to record a bump in Labour’s vote. Panelbase, Savanta and Kantar also have the party up in recent days.
There are other things going on too. While everybody knows that Labour has struggled to win over Remainers, its share of the Remain vote has risen from 32% before the election was called to 46% today. Are Remainers beginning to make some tactical choices? We shall see.
Similarly, look at 2017 Labour voters and that 70% retention today has risen from a level of 50% before the election. One reason why Jeremy Corbyn surprised observers two years ago was because of his ability to not only squeeze the Greens and Liberal Democrats but to win back ‘Labour Leaners’ during the campaign; people who basically agreed with everything that Labour was saying but who remained deeply ambivalent about Corbyn. Is this happening again? The numbers would suggest that things are moving in the right direction for Labour.
Closely linked to this are better figures for Labour among younger voters. Since the start of the campaign, the share of support for Labour among 18-24-year-olds and 25-49-year-olds has increased by five points and 14 points respectively. This is not to say that there is about to be another ‘Youthquake’, (not least because there probably wasn’t one to begin with in 2017). But it is to say that key groups that were central to a stronger Labour vote in the past — in particular the crucial 30-49-year-olds in the ‘Things Can Only Get Better Generation’ — do appear to be falling into line.
Certainly, there are still big problems for Labour. Unlike in 2017, any late rally this time around would be complicated by the stubbornly persistent Liberal Democrats. Jo Swinson and her party continue to average a decent 14% and are holding about one in eight people who voted Labour last time around.
But here there are two things to consider. First, the percentage of Labour voters defecting to the Liberal Democrats has dropped nine points since the start of the campaign. And, second, all of this points to something else: Labour simply has more room than the Conservatives to grow during the final weeks and days of the campaign.
There are still a large number of undecided voters, another group that was key to Labour’s surprisingly strong result in 2017. One reason why we are still likely to see significant change is because of the large number of people who have yet to decide how to vote.
One reason why we are likely to see shifts in the polls: the number of people who are still undecided. As of this weekend 26% (YouGov), 20% (Survation) or 16% (Opinium) of people told pollsters that they have yet to decide who to vote for. These are significant numbers #ge2019
— Matthew Goodwin (@GoodwinMJ) November 25, 2019
As of this week, 26% (YouGov), 20% (Survation) or 16% (Opinium) of people told pollsters that they have yet to decide who to vote for. These are significant.
Meanwhile, between them, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats and the Greens are still taking 20% of the vote. Is this really going to hold until polling day? Or will both of these progressive parties be squeezed as pro-Remain and liberal voters zoom in on the tactical choices that they need to make? In 2017, between the start and end of the campaign this combined vote crashed from 15% to 9%
And last, but by no means least of all, is the message. There is absolutely no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn remains highly divisive and unpopular. He is the most unpopular opposition party leader since pollsters began to track public opinion. But while the messenger is unpopular we know that this message is not.
We have been pointing this out for on UnHerd for a while now. And over recent months I have been polling the Labour policy offer in detail, from the majorities who support nationalisation to the majorities who would like to clamp down on financial services and the top 5%.
Many voters do not trust Labour on the economy but many are also instinctively receptive to the claim that the system is rigged. Today, Labour’s even more radical manifesto will strike some observers as fiscally irresponsible but one key lesson in our post-2016 world is that voters do not always approach electoral contests with the same rational choice cost-benefit calculations as think-tankers.
I am not suggesting that Labour is about to win a majority or replace the Conservatives as the largest party in the polls. But what I am suggesting is that with little over two weeks to ago there are good reasons to expect this race to narrow, for Labour to rally and for assumptions about a Conservative majority to be tested. British politics, I suspect, is not quite done delivering one or two shocks.