Labour’s lead is slipping and its main rivals are still the Tories (remember them?)

18th June, 2013 7:38 am

The Independent’s poll of polls announced last week showed two things: the first is that Labour’s poll lead is slipping (to five points, its lowest level in a year, a year which has been abysmal for the Tories). This is exactly what we would expect, it is doing what pretty much every mid-term lead has ever done – evaporating. There’s a bit more analysis behind that here.

That does not mean it should not concern us and growing consciousness of this effect may well have been a factor in the raft of – pretty sensible – policy announcements made the previous week.

But the second point was that UKIP was eating into Labour’s support, rather than just the Tories. The question is not whether this is happening – it is, if in a modest way – it is why, and what should we do about it?

There are two ways to interpret the “why” – one obvious one is that there are voters switching from Labour to UKIP because they have evaluated the policy offerings of both and are choosing one above the other.

Since the local elections, the UKIP effect seems to have resulted in some feverish speculation in various corners of the party, perhaps a factor in the resurgence of some Blue Labour ideas in areas such as immigration and Europe.

The other way to interpret the swing from Labour to UKIP is hidden in an explanatory quote from Prof. John Curtice, who compiled the poll of polls:

“Labour’s relatively soft vote, much of it a protest vote, also seems vulnerable to UKIP’s appeal”

In other words, the UKIP voters are protest voters. Protest voters tend to swing about wildly between parties, for the simple reason that they are voting against something rather than for something. It is a much more reasonable explanation than the first one, for the simple reason that Labour’s and UKIP’s ethos and proposed programmes (such that are available at the time of writing) are so different as to be entirely incompatible.

Let’s look a little more closely at protest votes. Almost a year before Farage’s big surge in this year’s local elections, Left Foot Forward pointed out that much of Labour’s lead was down to Farage’s taking votes from the Tories rather than booming popular support for Labour. Ergo, when UKIP’s support thins out, as it almost inevitably will, it will be Labour who most suffers.

Why will it almost inevitably thin out? Because there exists something one might perhaps describe not as an iron law, but certainly a consistent pattern in British politics:

  1. There will almost always be a protest party of some sort;
  2. support for the protest party will generally be overestimated by the media, until
  3. its inevitable poor showing in a general election under a first-past-the-post system.

At varies times it can be applied to the SDP, the Referendum Party, Respect and so on.

So, both Labour and UKIP are showing protest vote effects.

Conclusions from all this? First, not to forget that the Tory vote will strengthen as UKIP declines, and more than Labour will. Our lead is not only declining, but what remains is palpably soft because it contains its own edge of protest votes within it.

Second, it does not make a great deal of sense to tack towards a party whose policies are diametrically opposed to our own. There is no Labour/UKIP porous border.

There is a reason why it is attractive to cast around among the Lib Dems, UKIP, Respect or others to find specious electoral threats. And that is because it avoids us having to deal with the unpalatable truth that the Tories are really the only party standing between us and Number 10.

Unpalatable because, to take votes off a party, you ultimately need to recapture ground that they have taken from you; some kind of wishful-thinking rainbow coalition simply will not work. That said, there are positive signs that the leadership is finally starting to recognise this home truth.

However, it also requires a different approach from the one we appear to be adopting. Ironically, making UKIP-lite noises on immigration and Europe might even put off those centrist swing voters we are trying to attract back from the Tories.

So, here are the three most important parties we need to worry about in this “four party politics”: the Tories, the Tories, the Tories.

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  • Felix

    Marchabt has clearly never had to strategise for a swing seat then.

  • Monkey_Bach

    The general public do not understand UKIP polices, probably because UKIP doesn’t understand its own policies many of which are frankly batcrap crazy. Here’s a link to an interesting non-political article on UKIP’s incoherent tax proposals by a former tax inspector.

    UKIP has for the moment become a sink for disgruntled protest voters of all kinds.

    I doubt this will be the case come the next general election when, as the author of this article states, the Conservative Party will reassert itself as the greatest danger as far as frustrating Labour’s chance for an early return to office goes.


    • Rob Marchant

      Yes, I think it’s certainly true that a lot of those who are toying with the idea of UKIP seem to be unaware of their dafter policies. Closer to a general election I think their clearly very rough-and-ready candidate screening will come under scrutiny.

      • Mike Homfray

        I certainly think that UKIP’s enthusiasm for Thatcherite economics is something we ought to be emphasising as it won;t have appeal to Labour voters.

  • Boldee

    One of the main issues I have seen within the social networking community is a complete lack of understanding of UKIP policy such as it is, lots of people assuming they are somehow different to all the other parties. What I don’t see is people talking about the EU but concentrating on immigration, it seems that rather than associate themselves with the likes of the BNP more people are aligning with UKIP under the false impression that they will stop immigration completely and a far too common attitude of deportation of various ethnic groups.

    It seems pretty obvious to me that recent events are contributing to UKIP support but this seems to elude political commentators for some reason who prefer to concentrate on other reasons for Labour losing support. If you don’t follow social networking sites I suggest you take a look it makes pretty grim reading, the amount of hatred being spouted by some people beggars belief.

  • Colin McCulloch

    Another problem is that Labour policies have the appearance of being “Tory-lite”, even if they are or not. Voters don’t see a big difference (“they’re all the same”) and will use their protest vote to great effect with UKIP.

  • “Protest voters tend to swing about wildly between parties”

    Or, like myself, don’t bother voting at all if there’s no suitable protest party.

    I’m one of the five million who abandoned New Labour following Blair’s betrayal of UK armed forces in the Iraq disaster. Labour’s prospects would be greatly improved if some of these millions (who are obviously not all Tory voters) could be won back. But there is the rather awkward matter of trust. Even if (and this is an exceedingly massive ‘if’) Labour were able to produce an outstanding set of policies, I’m not convinced voters are ready to trust Labour again.

    And why should they trust Labour? True, Blair has gone but many of those who enthusiastically implemented New Labour policies remain. And the memory of misconceived military adventures will be refreshed when Chilcot reports. Add to this the ever-present economic crisis (not entirely unfairly associated with New Labour) and we have a Labour Party seriously hobbled by its own history.

    I suspect Labour will need at least two terms in opposition before trust can be re-established.

    • Daniel Speight

      I hope you are wrong Dave. I suspect another term from Cameron and Britain will look similar to Greece. At least the Scots have the chance to get out while they can.

    • Frankie D.

      “And why should they trust Labour?” Because no matter how bad labour were, they’re rainbow puppies compared to the tories.

  • Jeremy_Preece

    Here we go again, and I find myself saying the same things again and again.
    Rather than look over our shoulder and keep on trying to dance to the Tory tune, in the hope that we will out-Tory the Tories I think that we are now more than ready for Ed M to step up and say what Labour’s policies are, and to really hammer home how Labour is different to the other parties and why voting for Labour will be beneficial. That is, for the vast majority, why a Labour government would make their lot better.
    This message needs to be hammered home in un-wonkish everyday plain English. It needs to be set out clearly so that everyone, that is the vast majority of voters, can understand it.
    Of course not everyone will agree with it and there will be some who prefer the message of another party. So be it. You can’t please everyone. But the clear distinctions between Labour and the rest would be there for all to see. This would certainly go along way towards answering the frequent voter reaction of “they’re all the same”. It would also give us a position of strength from which to argue against the Tories and would stop the obvious course that the arguments currently take which is “what would your lot do?”, followed by head scratching.
    This would not only win back the voters who are currently opting for the protest bucket of UKIP, it would enable us to argue clearly against the Tories and to show exactly why the Tories have nothing to offer.
    At the moment what we are seeing is a few stories that the economy is not quite as awful as it was a year ago, and that a few people think it might even slightly improve (maybe), and then the Tory vote picks up. We have had a lead only because we depend on the economy being totally wrecked with no glimmer of hope. That is a very bad place to be.
    So let’s hope that after three years the great and the good have actually got Labour policies to offer, and let’s hope that Ed M can actually speak out clearly and deliver the messages.
    If we really did have direction, purpose and clear water between ourselves and the Tories, and some policy ideas, and our leader and his front bench were all hammering the simple message home, then you would see Labour leap ahead in the polls. More importantly, you would see the next Labour government ready in the wings.

    • Rob Marchant

      So, “clear red water”, then?

      • Daniel Speight

        Rob would rather have a piddling yellow stream.

    • David Parker

      Absolutely …unfortunately Stephen Twigg having decided to say something about his brief at last has simply giving commentators the chance to remind the public that Labour is not very different from the Tories ! Does he intend to out do Gove in his disregard for the views of Britain’s teachers, angry parents and tens of thousands of potential labour voters? This is no way to consolidate support.

  • Chrisso

    Labour lead down to 5%? In the last 14 polls on uk polling report Labour had double digit leads in six of them. There is always a swing back to the governing party at election time. Happy for EM to keep his tinder dry for another year. Ukip is a fleeting distraction.

    • Rob Marchant

      You are right that UKIP is (probably) a fleeting distraction. I’m not sure about the rest. This is a poll of polls – check it out if you don’t agree. I would also add that there are a lot of YouGov polls and these generally poll higher than average.

      • Amber_Star

        Rob, UKPR weighted average of polls adjusts for the preponderance of YG daily polling. Labour, on the UKPR average & uniform national swing, has a theoretical 94 seat majority.

        I checked ComRes’s weekend poll for the Indie. ComRes have provided data regarding Kippers’ stated Party identity. It showed: if 100% of the Tory identifiers who say UKIP at the moment returned to the Tories & same for Labour identifiers, the outcome would be 34% for the Tories & 38% for Labour, giving Labour a majority of 45 seats on UNS. Given ComRes’s method never flatters Labour, this post adjustment 45 seat lead could be construed as a minimum.

        This comment isn’t intended to foster complacency. It’s just some information to consider.

        • Rob Marchant

          I understand your point, but I’m afraid that is making the (I believe fallacious) assumption that a poll now can be extrapolated to a poll in 2015. The whole point is, *the polls always narrow*.

          In other words, you cannot say Exp(vote if election tomorrow)=Exp(vote for election in 2015). The historical evidence doesn’t bear it out. This is the whole point of the research I linked in the Centre Left piece, it strips out this effect.

  • Rob Marchant

    But how important is the effect of someone who would vote Labour, and then as an alternative switches to one which is far more right-wing? What does it say about the consistency, not to mention knowledge and common sense, of that person? And is that effect not magnified if you are implying that Labour should really be to the left of where it currently is?

    • Colin McCulloch

      Thanks for the reply Rob.

      I think you need to accept that whilst political animals like ourselves think in “left” and “right” terms – the average voter doesn’t. They might hold traditional left wing views on publicly run utilities and services but be utterly opposed to unlimited EU immigration, for example.

      The rise of UKIP amongst the average voter is down to the need to voice a protest against the current political system. Labour needs to identify core values and policies, stick to them and try to convince voters of their worth.

      The current reactionary strategy – basically bandwagoning (sic) – is a fairly poor one and will not reap rewards in 2015, in my humble opinion.

      Mind you, I’m just an ordinary Labour Party member who was apparently not suitable for standing as a candidate – I’ll happily give way to those more “in the know” if they can demonstrate a real link between reactionary policy making and electoral success.

      • Boldee

        I have heard this unsuitable argument before when my local councillor wanted to stand for county,in my opinion she is a proper working class candidate that most people can relate to but some members of the local CLP were opposed to her standing as she isn’t well educated not having a degree.

        I couldn’t believe the snobbery of it and its not as if those who were against her standing were from the educated middle classes they are as working class as I am, in the end she stood for county only losing by a couple of hundred votes in a traditionally Tory area with the best result for Labour in years.

        • Colin McCulloch

          There is a real dearth of working class candidates in the Labour Party – and the candidates programme does little to help get more in, as it focuses less on character, charisma and ideas and more on toeing the party line regardless.

          We’re creating another class of careerist politicians who will obey the diktats of the central office without question. That can’t be good for democracy nor for the Labour movement as a whole.

    • Mike Homfray

      But you’ve said it yourself. Protest votes are protest votes. Where they end up is almost irrelevant to those making the protest.
      How many LD voters in the south-west are in sympathy with some of the LD’s policies – its probably the most Eurosceptic part of the UK?

  • DaveAboard

    The “Labour to halt Free Schools” vs “Labour to keep Free Schools” headlines coupled with the now, almost daily “Another Labour U-Turn” report sums up, in a nutshell, how Labour seems incapable of putting over anything but the most confused message. Labour risks losing the 2015 election not through failing to attract a relatively small number of marginal seat swing-voters but by further marginalising their core vote who are becoming increasingly disaffected and apathetic with each confused announcement to the point many will simply stay at home and allow a Tory victory by default.

    Labour needs to be proposing firm and unequivocal policies which aren’t open to multiple media interpretations, mischievous or otherwise, which quite clearly state the party’s direction of travel instead of the current muddled “cut and paste” of quasi-Tory ideology constantly laying themselves open to accusations of “U-turns” and leaving the electorate scratching it’s collective head in puzzlement.

    Labour, Byrne in particular, also needs to understand that the effects of unemployment, short-hours working, declining salaries and reduced living standards are beginning to cut significantly into middle class family life and to suffix every policy announcement with veiled threats of sanctions and enforced low paid work merely makes the party look out of touch when most people now realise there is a net jobs to vacancies deficit of around two million which no amount of “tough talk” is going to change.

  • Graemeyh

    These are the latest figures from the last 4 polls carried out since 14th June 2013. Interestingly there is a Labour lead of 9% in every one of them. It still might be argued that Labour should have a much higher lead at the point in electoral cycle but not sure they would really support the argument that “Labour lead shrinking” (to the Tories). The Tories actually poll only in mid 20’s in two of those polls. I think if anything much can be argued from opinion polls at this point is that 2015 might well be a very tight race indeed.

    Here are the details:

    Opinium in the Observer have topline figures of CON 27%(+1), LAB 36%(-1), LDEM 7%(+1), UKIP 20%(-1). ComRes for the Sunday Indy and Sunday Mirror
    CON 26%(-3), LAB 35%(nc), LDEM 10%(+2), UKIP 19%(nc). YouGov poll for the Sun CON 31%, LAB 40%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 13%.YouGov/Sunday Times poll CON 30%, LAB 39%, LD 10%, UKIP 14%.

  • Rob

    Good article Rob. I think we have to remember the wider context. We lost the last election with our second worst ever performance. To be back in the running at all is an achievement.
    We also spent our time in power implementing Tory-lite policies. In particular, we carried on privatising and we carried on the Thatcherite love fest with the City to the detriment of the country as a whole. The last Labour government believed the lie that economic success could be based on debt and higher house prices. It never could and the wheels came off the economy in 2008.
    Our worst policy decision, amongst many, was to open our borders. This was done for various reasons, some “left wing” and some more free market orientated. But the consequences – 3 million or so people coming into the country in less than a decade has not been positive. No one planned for the increased demand for housing, schools and healthcare. And the “squeezed middle” and working class people have undoubtedly suffered the consequences of this migration. UKIP offer a simple, and somewhat simplistic answer, but we have to recognise that their offer resonates with people who might otherwise vote Labour.

    So yes, the Tories are the real enemy, but we have a greater chance of beating them if we recognise that we didn’t lose the last election for being too left wing. We know have a chance to be brave, and offer a genuine alternative to the Thatcherite settlement of the last 30 years. We’ll see…

  • postageincluded

    Of course, it’s the Tories, Rob, and all the more so because the LibDems have stopped being a threat. I don’t see anyone running around saying otherwise.

    But other than that this is specious piece. I don’t know how Curtice’s “Poll of Polls” is constructed, but it clearly gives a very different result to the method Andrew Wells uses on UK Polling Report, producing a much less wince-inducing 9% lead. You’re picking your figures to suit your prejudice.

    I notice also that in your blog you say (hidden away in a note):

    “….the polls two years out are potentially not great predictors. For this reason we don’t try to predict who will win”.

    If your results are not good enough to predict then they’re not good enough to predict. Nevertheless you present your prediction here, in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink style, to justify your usual criticisms of the current leadership.

    And slapping yourself on the back because you think the leadership is now following your suggestions is pretty conceited. All in all an unlikable performance.

  • AlanGiles

    Of course the reason the poll lead between Labour and Conservative is narrowing (leaving UKIP or anyone else out of the equation) is quite simply the policy DIFFERENCES between Conservative and “Iron Discipline” Labour are getting NARROWER.

    Consumers can be a bit blase’ : two more or less identical products and out of habit they will buy the one they know best.

    It really should be a wake-up call to you though (especially Mr. Marchant and those on his wing of his party): one of the most inept governments in history (they make the “Carry On” team look like Mastermind!), and all you have to show for it after three years is a narrow, and highly mallable, lead.

    The truth is the current age of austerity isn’t working, and Labour’s nip and tuck adaptation of those failed policies won’t work either – and the public know that.

    AG 19/6/13 0507BST

  • JohnPReid

    For the last 16 months labour has been ahead in the opinion polls and for the last 10 months its been an average of a 8% lead, labour first went ahead in the polls in August 2010 in the last 6 weeks of Harriet Hermans acting leadership,, with the Tories going back ahead in the polls at the Tory conference in Oct 2010 and then dipping at Xmas and going ahead in the polls 3 different times in the next 2 years, once as high as 42% Tory,31 % labour in Oct 2012′ the Tory support has fallen, but so has labours so, Labur maybe 8% ahed but they’re still under the magic 40%’ now it was labour being 12% ahead for 16 months between the spring of 80 and the fall of 90′ that saw the Tories panic into ousting Thathcer,

    The polls show that support for anyone but the 4 main parties s at 15% come the election it’ll be down to 7%’

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