August 12, 2016
By John Punter, Associate Director
Yesterday’s polls are the stuff of nightmares for Labour, with the party registering its worst rating since 2009 when an unpopular Brown-led Labour government was in office. Now, it’s well known that party leadership elections never appeal to voters, which goes some way to explaining why Labour has fallen to 27% (-2) in ICM’s latest poll, but still these figures illustrate just how bad it is for Labour right now and how much work is ahead for either Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith (unless the contest is halted following a legal challenge to the NEC’s ruling to include Corbyn without the nomination of MPs). Parties in opposition should not be polling so low more than a year out from a general election, particularly after a referendum vote that publicly aired the conflicts in the governing party. Yet, this is where Labour finds itself.
This wasn’t the end of the bad news for Labour. The Conservatives are experiencing the usual poll bounce a new leader can give a party. The Tories are registering 43% (+2) approval ratings in the same poll – a huge 16 point polling gap. But one shouldn’t trust one poll, because outlier results can happen. Hence, when YouGov’s voting intention figures also show a large double-digit polling gap of 12 points with the Conservatives on 40% and Labour on 28%, Labour’s high command should be worried. And finally for fresh salt in the wound, a further YouGov poll yesterday saw 66% of those who voted Labour in Scotland in last year’s general election stating that Corbyn is doing a bad job as leader, with only 19% feeling he’s doing well. This last poll is one of the hardest for Corbyn because, when he came to power, there was a feeling that despite the difficulties selling his brand of socialism to the wider UK electorate, perhaps he was the one to begin the healing in Scotland and start the massive challenge of winning back one of the party’s traditional heartlands. This poll shows just how fatuous that hope was.
Now there is the prospect of a torturous summer ahead for Labour. They are stuck in the midst of civil war with little hope of any unity in the party once this leadership contest is over – no matter who wins – while the Tories are driving forward with a harmonious frontbench refreshed from a swift, cauterising leadership battle. For the wider electorate the Labour Party as an alternative policy platform is now on hiatus, which could not have come at worst possible time.
The country is in the middle of the biggest constitutional, political, social and economic crisis its experienced since World War II. It needs leadership and ideas on how to drive forward from this position following the Brexit result in the referendum, and these should come from both sides of the political divide. However, currently the country only has the voice of the Government, with little scrutiny or alternatives from her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Unfortunately Labour has form for picking precisely the wrong time to have leadership contests. After the 2010 general election, the Coalition Government quickly got out of the blocks to blame Labour for the economic crisis, while two brothers were fighting for its leadership. The charge – somewhat unfairly – stuck and the winning brother spent the next five years apologising for it.
Labour’s job as the Official Opposition is to provide alternative ideas to the electorate, hold the Government to account and ensure a plurality of policy ideas to take the country forward in this delicate time. Until it can deliver some unity the public can believe, these polling figures will continue and only one side of the political spectrum’s ideas on how to navigate Brexit will be heard or taken forward. In its current state the Labour Party is falling short of providing that opposition and plurality of ideas, while surrendering any post-referendum initiative.
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The Whitehouse Consultancy is one of Europe’s leading public affairs and communications agencies.