Labour’s Nothing Year

by Atul Hatwal

“Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all, the needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before. And we’ll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow”

While I was looking at the latest polling earlier this week, this melancholic eighties gem, Nothing Ever Happens, by Del Amitri, came on the radio. It couldn’t have been more appropriate.

At the start of the year in this column I highlighted Labour’s poll challenge by tracking responses to three specific questions asked intermittently by YouGov in their daily and weekly polls.

These questions go beneath headline voting intentions to examine voters’ attitudes on what are likely to be defining issues at the next election.

They chart three things – first, how the public feel the government is hitting them in the wallet; second, their view of how the government is cutting the deficit and third, who they prefer as a leader – David Cameron or Ed Miliband.

The answers over the past nine months have involved hundreds of thousands of responses and reveal that the entire Labour party might as well have not turned up for work this year.

Nothing has happened. Nothing has happened at all.

The wallet line tracks voters’ financial self-interest. Because it focuses on peoples’ perceptions of their own financial future, it gives quite a different perspective to the general doom and gloom about the economic position.

After a brief rise in spring, the wallet line has settled at the same level as at the start of the year. In January 74% of people didn’t view the coming 12 months as posing a major financial drama. In May, this rose to 78% before falling back to 75% in July and has stayed there ever since.

Despite Britain’s grim economic performance, the eurozone crisis and American slump, the public has barely moved over the course of the year.

Baffling? Not really.

Some good old fashioned cynicism about the true state of the economy meant that people paid little heed to government pronouncements of instant success and ever increasing tractor production. That things are in fact not rosy and clouds are gathering merely reinforces rather than contradicts.

The second of the measures, the argument gap, looks at the public’s views on the central economic question – how to cut the deficit. Again, the results are stark.

57% think that the way the government is cutting the deficit is necessary with 30% disagreeing. When it comes to the deficit, Labour is currently on the wrong side of almost two thirds of the electorate.

It’s a bleak picture, one that seems black and white. But equally, one that has stirred controversy within the party. Over the course of the year, two camps have emerged.

On one side are those, myself included, who see Labour as hopelessly out of touch on how it presents its approach on the deficit. Polling such as the argument gap indicates the scale of the problem.

On the other, is a camp of optimists who contend that Labour has in fact made solid progress in winning people over on the deficit. They count many of Ed Miliband’s advisers and the shadow chancellor’s team amongst their number, and cite the responses to some of the other questions on the deficit asked by YouGov as evidence of Labour’s progress.

These questions examine the public’s views on the pace and depth of deficit reduction. The responses regularly show majorities saying too far, too fast. On the face of it these do seem to support the current Labour position.

Which is why it’s important that this is nailed for what it is – hopeful nonsense.

Although the polling supports Labour’s attack on the government, this is not the same as backing Labour to make a better job of deficit reduction.

The voters’ judgement on Labour’s solution to the deficit is crystal clear.

Labour’s current policy is the same as at the last election when we polled less than 30% of the vote. In each of the YouGov surveys since the election that have included the relevant questions, the public has been resolute that the last Labour government bears principal responsibility for the cuts.

In January, 41% said that the Labour government was solely to blame, with 25% blaming the coalition and 23% both. By September there had been only the most minor shift, with 38% blaming Labour, 26% the coalition and 25% both.

Not only have the voters given their verdict on Labour’s policy at the general election, they have been absolutely consistent in holding this policy responsible for the deficit problems.

In this context, it’s hard to understand how anyone can see a pattern of support for the Labour alternative.

It’s perfectly logical for the public to want action on the deficit and to think that the government is being over zealous, but still to prefer that, as bad as it is, to the Labour approach.

Unfortunately, the party has simply ignored the result from 2010, and subsequent polls, and just returned the needle to the start of the record and sung along like before.

You don’t have to be a political genius to predict what the result will be at the ballot box if the song remains the same.

The gloom for Labour is compounded by the third of the measures – the leader gap.

The results here are perhaps the most disappointing of all.

David Cameron spent most of the summer dropping the ball. First with his leaden attempts to get to grips with hacking and then being on holiday for the riots, his leadership was tested and found wanting.

What is more, Ed Miliband did a very good job in leading the debate on News International and over a period of weeks consistently received positive press.

And what was the impact?

David Cameron’s lead was reduced, but it was still in double digits throughout August before returning to some of its highest levels in recent weeks.

For a few brief weeks in July, there was a chance that maybe David Cameron was vulnerable. But from the perspective of late September, it all seems a world away.

The lesson from the polling is that David Cameron will have to undergo a total meltdown – one that makes hacking look like a walk in the park – and Ed Miliband would have to play a flawless game, for this solid 10-15 point lead to be wiped out.

David Cameron might not be as good as some of his publicity suggests, and by the same token, Ed Miliband might be better than a lot of his write-ups, but can anyone really see that scenario happening?

Looking in the round at the leader gap, the public’s sanguine view of their personal finances in the coming year and the lost argument on the economy, Labour’s poll challenge is beginning to look overwhelming.

Defeat in a general election is a horrible, empty experience. At the end of election night, there is no camaraderie, or hope, just solitary reflection on being beaten.

If we have the ears to listen, the polls are telling us that this is coming again.

Unless something major happens to disrupt the status quo that foul feeling will be the collective and individual experience of members of the Labour party on May 7 2015.
Which brings me back to the beginning. Because it was that feeling which stirred while listening to Nothing Ever Happens this week.

And we’ll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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6 Responses to “Labour’s Nothing Year”

  1. Nick says:

    You’re still missing the point. The deficit is just a small problem. Cut 30% off government spending and its solved.

    The real problem is debt, and you’re not using your ears.

    1 trillion in borrowing.

    0.5 trillion in odds and sods like PFI

    5.5 trillion in pension debts.

    The market doesn’t care about the pensions. It just cares about Gilts and PFI. The ratings are just about the risk of these being defaulted on.

    With a deficit the government needs to borrow, so the ratings matter.

    As for the rest of us, we aren’t going to get what we paid for. The pensions are going to go.

    So unless you get your heads out of the sand, and confront the big issue, which is that you’ve (all politcians) screwed the electorate, particularly future generations, you’re going nowhere.

  2. swatantra says:

    Exactly! It was more like ‘Waiting for Godot’ or one of those meaningless plays and diatribes from Harold Pinter. Plus ca change.
    Both Dave and Nick are doing well relatively speaking. The Coalition is working.
    The Govt is governing. But Labour is not working, and our problem is that we lack leadership. But its all early days yet. Give it another year and another recession and a tsunami and earthquake and hurricane and we might see a rise in the Lefts popularity.

  3. John Ruddy says:

    I’d interested to see the exact figures and wording of that question on cutting the deficit. Because While all the polls I have seen indicate that about 2/3’s of the voters see Cutting the deficit as necessary, this doesnt translate into cutting it in the way the coalition is going about it. Confusing support for deficit reduction measures as support for the governments methods is not going to help Labour.

  4. Dan McCurry says:

    The problem I have with this is the questions on whether deficit reduction is necessary. Of course it is. The question we need to ask is more nuanced. It is whether the Tory lack a growth strategy and whether Labour has one. This crucial question isn’t represented in this polling.

  5. Dan McCurry says:

    The problem I have is with the questions on whether deficit reduction is necessary. Of course it is. The question we need to ask is more nuanced. It is whether the Tory’s lack a growth strategy and whether Labour has one. This crucial question isn’t represented in this polling.

  6. AmberStar says:

    @ Atul

    Some things you might want to think about:
    1. No Party with any sense starts its election campaign 4 years out from a GE;
    2. Voters admire consistency & principles. To get that reputation, a Party has to spend time being consistent & principled…
    3. Ed had one opportunity to shine: Hacking & BSkyB. And initially he rose to the challenge. I think he over-played his hand, by calling for an extra day of parliament – it just gave Cameron an extra day to make excuses. But apart from that, Ed did extremely well.

    David Cameron’s popularity & that of the Coalition was trending down. Cameron got a big boost from Libya. You can see it in the polling. It was male voters who switched to Con & being pro-Cameron whilst every news broadcast was showing bombs & guns. It’s dropping back a bit now, though, since the news agenda has moved on.

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