3 early warning signs that Labour’s poll-lead drama is about to become a full blown crisis

by Atul Hatwal

It’s been a bracing week for Labour. A widely panned budget response from Ed Miliband, followed by weekend polls placing the poll lead at just one point, have brought Labour’s private jitters out into the open.

First, last week an MP briefed Uncut on the disconsolate mood in the PLP following Ed Miliband’s budget response, then, yesterday John Mann broke cover, publicly airing some of the concerns discussed daily in the PLP.

And now, even the world of Labour think tanks has got involved, with a coalition ranging from the Unite backed Class to the Blairite Policy Network calling on Ed Miliband to be “bold,” and “radical,” (though the bold and radical vision that could unify such an ideologically disparate group of signatories is singularly unclear.)

Polls go up and down, but the overall direction of travel is unmistakeable. As the Tories draw level, or even nose in front, in the coming months, Labour’s cracks are going to become ever more evident.

Here are 3 early warning signs to watch for from the PLP and Labour leadership that the party’s poll lead drama is turning into a full scale crisis.

1. Off-topic interventions from the shadow cabinet

When a party is riding high in the polls, the leader’s authority is absolute and members of the shadow cabinet stick obediently to their briefs. When the situation is less favourable, the temptation to answer interviewers’ questions on how the position can be improved, becomes much stronger.

In summer 2013, as the last crisis of confidence in Ed Miliband gathered momentum, Andy Burnham gave an extraordinary Guardian interview. In it, he talked of how Labour had “lost the art of thinking bigger,” and ranged widely, tackling political strategy, economic policy, as well as the importance of the two Eds’ green lighting his plans for integrating health and social care (which they pointedly haven’t.)

If and when the polls stay this close, expect more of the same from members of the shadow cabinet, particularly those with leadership ambitions for 2015.

Naturally they will say that their views aren’t criticisms of either Ed, and that journalists have misconstrued their words. But this will be sophistry.

In the pressure cooker environment of the House of Commons, discontent among their friends, followers and colleagues in the PLP will have reached such a point that to not say something publicly is more politically damaging that remaining quiet.

So when the interviewer asks, they will answer.

2. Increased red on red briefing

There is a saying that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. This is of course wrong and nowhere more so than in politics. There are always an abundance of voices, keen to assign responsibility for disaster.

When the polls narrow, as they have this year, these voices are raised to a cacophony.

The leader’s office will be eager to let the world know that the shadow cabinet should be doing more to pull their weight. It’s notable that negative stories about the shadow cabinet’s work rate last year coincided with the period of increased pressure on Ed Miliband.

In response, the shadow cabinet and Labour front benchers will be clear that Ed Miliband’s office is a disaster zone, with decisions disappearing into a black hole of confusion and inertia.

The unions will blame the Blairites and even the loyalists will start calling for a sharper message and greater clarity.

Just about the one cause that will unite these various factions will be that many of Labour’s problems are down to Ed Balls.

For the leader’s office, Ed Balls will be the reason Labour is behind on the economy.

For the shadow cabinet, Balls will be the party-pooper who vetoes election winning policies and a handy target for putative leadership campaigns hoping to damage his wife, Yvette Cooper’s, status as front-runner for next leader.

And for the unions, Ed Balls will be the man who crushes party morale by refusing to break with the Tories’ public sector pay policies.

The volume of this type of briefing will rise in direct proportion to the private panic engulfing the PLP.

3. Labour’s poll unskewers shouting more loudly

One of the strangest developments of the last US presidential campaign was the rise of Republican poll unskewers. A group who, when faced with uncomfortable polling facts, simply refused to believe the evidence and claimed the way the polls were conducted was skewed.

While such a faith-based approach to polling might fit with the Republican’s broader attitude to rational analysis, it seems Labour also has its own unskewing tendency.

Labour unskewers’ make two points to bolster their claims of a 2015 Labour victory: first, it’s hard for Labour to lose if the party takes a fifth of the Lib Dem’s 2010 vote, and second, Labour’s projected percentage share of the vote has remained consistent at 37%-38%.

This position was typified in a piece by George Eaton over at the New Statesman in December, entitled, “Why Labour’s poll lead is small but very stubborn,” which had the sub-head, “So long as Miliband retains the support of around 20% of 2010 Lib Dem voters, the Tories have no hope of victory.”

In fairness to George, his piece yesterday sounded a different note, but the December article neatly summarises what is an unhealthily common view within Labour.

Unfortunately, the evidence does actually suggest it’s time to panic.

Research by YouGov has highlighted that while Labour may well attract Lib Dem votes, it’s not simply a matter of adding extra Lib Dems onto Labour’s 2010 base. Their analysis across 37,000 respondents in January this year shows that Labour has also lost 6-7% of the party’s 2010 vote. Lib Dem defectors barely make-up for Labour’s losses.

And over the last fifty years, only once has an opposition not lost support in the year before an election.

 Graph pic

The average loss of support by an opposition in the year to an election is 5.7%. 1983 is the anomaly when Labour stood at 28% in the polls one year before the election and achieved 28% in the final poll

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that June 1982 was the height of the Falklands war, with British troops over-running Argentinian positions and patriotic support boosting the government’s ratings. Just a few weeks later, Labour was back in front in the polls before slumping to ignominious defeat in June 1983.

As the pressure rises, the unskewers’ entreaties not to panic will become more voluble. Loyal front-benchers will take up the cause and we’ll see unskewer analysis regularly retweeted to calm nerves.

The more Labour falls back on this approach, the deeper will be the hole in which the party finds itself. Clinging on to Lib Dem defectors and pointing to Labour’s consistency at 37% in the polls is the last redoubt of those who do not have anything substantive to say on policy or strategy.

Evidence of any one of these three warning signs – off-topic interventions from the shadow cabinet, increased red on red briefing and the rise in use of cod psephology – will be an indicator that a crisis is looming.

The presence of all three will tell us that the crisis is here.

At the end of last summer, all three signs were in evident abundance. Ed Miliband managed to halt the impending meltdown with his energy price freeze announcement at Labour conference.

Within the next two months, if the current trend in the polls continues and Labour does not do well enough in the May elections – particularly the local elections where UKIP will not be such a factor – Labour will be back where it was at the start of September 2013, locked in a spiral of panic and division.

Whether Ed Miliband will be able to perform another feat of policy escapology, to match his energy price freeze, is open to question, if it is possible at all.

Atul Hatwal is the editor of Uncut

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11 Responses to “3 early warning signs that Labour’s poll-lead drama is about to become a full blown crisis”

  1. paul barker says:

    Its not just that Labours lead has fallen over the last year, theres evidence that the fall is accelerating. According to UKPR, the gold standard for Polling averages, Labours average lead now stans at 3%, compared to 11% in February 2013. However, a quarter of the fall has happened in the last month.

  2. Steve says:

    Labour went high profile with a campaign to discredit trade union involvement in politics.

    Labour is in the process of dumping the trade unions link.

    Labour is going to be tougher on scroungers/benefit claimants than the Tories.

    Labour refuses to re-nationalise anything.

    And Labour accepts much of the Tory agenda.

    According to what we’ve been led to believe by Lord Sainbury’s acolytes we should now be riding high on the sunlit pastures of popular approval.

    Where did it all go wrong?

  3. Tafia says:

    Labour is now caught in a hinterland. If it moves to the left it will regain it’s lost working class support but risk losing its middle-of-the-road support. If it moves back towards the centre it risks things moving the other way.

    A simplistic example. To someone just under the buying price of a house and to someone who will never be able to afford to buy, which is the most important? Help to buy or social housing for rent? And if you can only afford one, which one do you support if you know that the other will never vote for you again.

    I stick by what I said a year ago – 2015 will see a tory government with a small majority. Labour are pitching to much to the centre ground and igmoring their roots and it is going to bite them hard.

    Remember, if the tories win and with a majority they will push through their parliamentary reform and Labour will then face a monumental struggle.

  4. John P Reid says:

    Steve ,a credible link to us Not renationalising anything, would be nice, we’ve said we may buy back the rialways

    and cutting the Union Link, Not even progress magazine ,have put that on their web page!

    I don’t think, the being tough on Welfare ,we’ve called them scroungers either!

  5. Robert says:

    The realistic aim for Labour since 2010 has been another hung Parliament, which still seems likely. Another important point is that Cameron would probably not ask for a dissolution this year even if he could, so Miliband has achieved something that Foot, Kinnock, Hague and Howard failed to do in 1983, 1987, 2001 and 2005.

  6. Mr Frost says:

    Good analysis. The two items that haven’t been considered are (1) the effect of (probably) a four party General Election and (2) Labour’s gerrymandered inbuilt 6% advantage.

  7. swatantra says:

    How can Labour ‘gerrymander’ anything when its the independent Boundary Commission which b****rs up historic and geographic boundaries in order to to squeeze 60 000 into each constituency?
    Wouldn’t it be better to have a Presidential system where you simply add up votes for and against, then every votre counts. ie Do away with corrupt Electoral Colleges.

  8. Tafia says:

    a four party General Election

    Mr Frost, that’s a very England-centric statement. I assume you mean UKIP – they are an irrelevance in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland where they are overwhelmingly regarded as an’England’ party.

    As things are progressing, the SNP will overtake the LibDems in 2015 and become the ‘third party’ at Westminster – and that would be a nightmare for Labour and the tories in a hung Parliament.

  9. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Well you should have had your narrative plan prepared two years ago, there should have been a credible move towards ending nepotism and corruption and moving towards Equality of Opportunity to enhance and strengthen the credibility of the Party to begin to build trust and create a genuine “movement of change”. New online and offline activities at the local and national level could have been created to address the lack of involvement and to boost membership. Finally the narrative (nice smile as I know that would have united Labour and it was far better than the almost good “squeezed middle”), would have been good strategy that would address (beyond the denial and pathetic and clumsy “we are a new generation of old/young discredited has-beens” peddled by Minibrand) the history of being in office and the history of blundering and blatent embarresments. The reality is in terms of impact and relevance to the public Labour has not changed at all. The Party has become more exclusive, more nepotistic, more corrupt than at any time in its history.
    Weird is Labours narrative, ancient and obsolete are its methods, and it is about to continue its journey into the history books as it declines into a declining webwork of failing feudal islands of “safe seats” owned by the pretentious and bizare few. Professional politics lol I don’t think so.

  10. uglyfatbloke says:

    Four party politics?
    Maybe, but not with UKIP. If they get 10 or even 15 % of the vote they will be lucky to get even 2 or 3 seats. If they get 20% of the vote that might stretch to half a dozen.
    The glibs will probably hang on better where they have high-profile MPs and some of their seat-fillers will be saved by a swing from the tories to UKIP. They won’t do so well in Scotland. The gnats stand to make several gains from the glibs and a couple of oddities – Eric Joyce (still kind of seen as Labour) and Ian Davidson (for being an idiot), but they won’t do all that well unless their current polling position holds up.
    It might do that of course….we have to expect that Lamont’s stupid statement about Scottish people being ‘not genetically programmed to make political decisions’ to feature in a lot of gnat campaign material. If so, we should expect to lose some Scottish MPs, but hopefully just the more useless ones.
    OTH, it would n’t take much of a swing to give the gnats a landslide; they already hold over 50 or so of the 73 FPTP Holyrood constituencies.

  11. paul barker says:

    To get back to the articles danger signs we have seen all 3 of them today, various Labour types saying “Polls ? What Polls ?”; Lammy shooting his mouth off & being told to shut up & now, more bad Polling.

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