by David Talbot
Does the Labour party still have a polling department? The party may not have the funds to do private polling on anything like the scale they have done in previous years, but frankly it may not need to. If Labour’s nice new offices on Brewers Green do indeed still contain a polling unit, no one could criticise them for doing almost exactly what the entire political establishment do, and wait for Lord Ashcroft to upload his latest PDFs.
His latest study is an authoritative account of what the British political landscape. It contains the hearty news that a majority of 84 is seemingly within the party’s grasp. But, alas, the good Lord’s work does not contain all good news for Labour– he is a Conservative, after all.
Ashcroft’s continued estrangement from the Conservative party has ironically served his greatest foe. The Daily Mail ran the curious tale of the peer meeting with Douglas Alexander, Labour’s election co-ordinator from the 2010 campaign. Seemingly, both sides have conveniently forgotten they spent years openly trying to destroy each other – indeed; many defeated Labour MPs owe their redundancy in large part to his finance. And yet again, many newly elected Labour MPs in 2015 may well owe a debt of gratitude.
The polling shows Labour advancing deep into Conservative held territory, with the very un-Labour sounding seats of Dorset South, Somerset North East and Chatham & Aylesford all returning to the Labour fold. Furthermore, a paltry 24% of respondents identified themselves as approving of the government’s record to date, whilst the same again said a Conservative government was their preferred outcome at the next general election.
Labour’s predicament is not as bad as that of the Conservatives in 1997 – for one thing, the party holds 258 seats, 93 more than the Tories’ apocalyptic total. But it does not follow that Labour will bounce straight back. From Jim Murphy’s warning of the rise of “Lazy Labour” – or the Toynbee tendency, depending on your rhetorical flourish – the party’s future depends on accepting why it lost, learning the right lessons, and making the necessary changes. From the research, the evidence shows any signs of doing so are at best mixed.
47% of respondents told Ashcroft’s study that they did not believe Labour had learnt the lessons of what went wrong during its time in government and, more devastatingly, could not be trusted to return to office. 49% still thought David Cameron would make the best Prime Minister, a lead of 10% over Ed Miliband, whilst even amongst Labour voters between fully 11% to 18% across the battleground seats did not view Miliband as the best candidate for prime minister.
The party scores well on empathy issues, but still lags behind the Conservatives on providing the “clearest vision” for the country and on who can steer the economy out of danger. It was however on finite policy issues that the headline-grabbing prognosis begins to fade; 43% believe their taxes will rise if a Labour government is elected – though this is roughly consistent of the public’s view of a Conservative government, too – 46% believe immigration will rise under Labour, 52% expect debt to rise, presumably fuelled by the same figure who think government spending will rise under a Miliband government, and 43% expect the benefits bill to rise.
Individually these figures may have just been bypassed. Collectively, they represent a problem for Labour. It shows a party movement dramatically at odds with the expectation of voters over the causes of its defeat and what it must do by 2015 to win again. Ashcroft’s findings cannot simply be dismissed by Labour due to the origins of the polling.
Opposition parties need to digest polling like this midterm to assess where they are and what is still to be done. As George Eaton at the New Statesman rightly observes, similar mass-polling exercises undertaken by Ashcroft in the previous parliament showed a Tory government of 146 and then 70. Seven months after the latter poll, the Conservatives failed to win an outright majority.
So, take with good heart the figure of 84 and the within the same breath dismiss it. As Ashcroft was at pains to say upon its publication, it is merely a snapshot not a prediction. In pure electoral terms the party is advancing, though if Labour were to haemorrhage support from the 29% base it starts from we might all as well pack up and head to warmer climates like, say, Belize. But on the key underlining structural questions facing the party from between now and 2015 there is, clearly, much to be done. One hopes that the party’s polling department have fired up the printers and are earnestly pouring over ever line. As party we are, as ever, much obliged m’Lord.
David Talbot is a political consultant