After 27 months without a Tory poll lead, one poll showing a Tory lead would have caused headaches in the Labour ranks. Two in the same day? It’s hard to overestimate how debilitating that could be for party morale, especially after so many months with an (albeit dwindling) lead.
No-one can say that this hasn’t been coming through. Poll leads have dipped from double digits to single digits. Labour’s poll share has fallen from the relative comfort of the low forties and the high thirties to the uncomfortable territory of the mid thirties, and now downwards into the low thirties – nearing the Gordon Brown zone.
Two months ago I wrote about a Labour Party that was calm, but should be “deeply anxious”.
If these dreadful polls achieve anything, I hope it’s to shake the party – politicians, staff and activists alike – out of the torpor which appears to have overcome it. Two years have poll leads have led to drift, a lack of energy and a deficit of imagination. These polls show that Labour cannot coast to victory – in fact, they show that defeat, and a painfully crushing one, is possible.
And yet there still remains a “keep calm and carry on” brigade in the Labour Party who are happy to embrace the low-energy, low-turnout world of modern politics. There are those who note, without concern, that Labour could still have the most seats with only 32% of the vote and a 2 point Tory lead. Putting the Democratic in “Democratic Socialism”, evidently. Such a government would face questions of legitimacy from day one. And then there are those – including at least one senior party staffer – who’ve told me that “if we draw we still win”, which seems complacent beyond belief.
Last night as I struggled to sleep, I wondered if there could be a worse time for the Tories to take a poll lead. Ten days before a major national election – Labour’s last national test before the general election – is awful timing. But worse, perhaps, would be if the party had managed to retain a poll lead until March 2015, only to find it evaporating once the campaign began, with no time left to stop the rot.
One thing that can be said for the position we find ourselves in today is that we do, just about, have time to stop the rot if we change course now.
Firstly, that means realising that we are in a fight for the future of the country, and acting like it. That means if we do better than expected next week, or if our poll lead returns to a relatively comfortable level, we can’t assume we’ve cracked it and everything is ok again. We need to be throwing the kitchen sink not only at the opposition, but also at pushing out our own bold agenda.
Recently Miliband has begun to hit his stride with policies that are both radical, but practical and popular as far as the voters are concered. But a fear of explaining – for example – how radical Miliband’s recent rents pledge is, the party hardly talked about it. And when it did, it talked down the radical nature of the policy – meaning that Labour supporters yearning for a big pitch from Miliband din’t hear one, even when it appeared. That can’t happen again. Campaign messaging and leadership messaging need to be more closely aligned, so that we don’t get messages on Rents, corporate takeovers and beating up on Nick Clegg tripping over themselves – with the positive message being almost forgotten before it’s even out there.
And while we’re talking about the Lib Dems – our relentless week long attack on them has seen them go up in the polls, whilst UKIP remain unchallenged.
Did we not learn the lessons of Bradford West – and Scotland – that you need to take on the party that you’re facing, not your preferred foe? In both cases Labour attacked the Tories, only to see ourselves outflanked by Galloway and the SNP respectively. It’s incredibly hard to fight an election from the left on negativity, especially when the positivity of your message is obscured. And whilst a shift in focus to the NHS is welcome – as it’s more positive ground for Labour – it’s still neither a local nor a European election issue. There’ve been a plethora of message leaflets issued by Labour HQ lately. The issue of the elections we’re fighting has been largely absent.
Whilst Labour people will be feeling down today though, it’s not too late to turn things around. It’s not even too late to turn things around in time for next week’s election. If our poll ratings can plummet, they can also rise. Polls are not bound by the laws of gravity – fortunately. If those in charge of Labour’s campaign grab the bull by the horns and shift towards positive messages that enthuse Labour voters, a good result next week is still possible. The candidates, organisers and capacity building work that the party put in place early on could also mean that Labour outperforms the national polling on the ground, where it matters. If so, the complaints of commentators like me will be forgotten, and the strategists and campaign chiefs will rightly reap the rewards and the praise.
But there is another scenario – where Labour comes second, or perhaps – unthinkably – third in the European elections, and underperforms in the local elections. If potential Labour voters are unmoved by our campaign, our messages and our leadership that could happen – and if it does, Miliband would face the toughest test of an already tough and tested leadership.