It is not down to effective leadership, but a return to two-party politicsby / May 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Much of the coverage of the weekend polls has concerned the rise in Labour’s support, to more than 30 per cent. In fact, their more important, potentially historic, message is that Theresa May is on course for the biggest mandate won by any prime minister for half a century. The latest polls give the Conservatives 48 per cent on average, up three points since the PM called the election. If the Tories hold their gains until 8th June, theirs will be the highest vote share won by any party since 1966.
Neither Margaret Thatcher nor Tony Blair won this level of support in their landslide victories. They both achieved their biggest wins with 44 per cent of the vote—Thatcher in 1983, Blair in 1997. May is on course to overtake them by four percentage points, equivalent to more than a million votes. We have to go back to Labour’s victory under Harold Wilson 51 years ago to match May’s current vote share.
The biggest reason for the Tories’ current huge lead is the collapse of the Ukip vote. With the Liberal Democrats stalled at under 10 per cent, we are seeing a return to two party politics, in England at least. (Scotland is a different story.) For the past 35 years, there has been a significant third force—the Liberal/SDP Alliance in the 1980s, the Lib Dems between 1992 and 2010, Ukip two years ago.
Unless either the Lib Dems or Ukip make a late surge this time, more than 85 per cent of English voters will vote Labour or Conservative. This would be the biggest two-party vote share since Edward Heath won the 1970 general election.
That, however, was a close-run thing, with both Labour and the Tories winning more than 40 per cent of the vote. If the Tories’ current poll lead holds, then their victory will not only be the biggest in terms of vote share for half a century, it will flow from the biggest gap between the two main parties since Labour’s near wipe-out in 1931.
It is in that context that we should judge the view of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters that he will be justified in remaining party leader if Labour’s vote share this time equals that obtained by Ed Miliband two years ago. The weekend polls, showing a modest recovery since May called the election four weeks ago, suggest he may achieve that target: Labour’s current 31 per cent polling average matches its 2015 vote share exactly*.
However, with the return to two-party politics, that is a flawed comparison. In 2015 Ukip attracted many traditional Labour voters. Since then, Ukip has imploded. Labour should be aiming to win back many of the votes it lost two years ago. If it can only match its 2015 vote share, then it has utterly failed to do that, or regained back some traditional Labour supporters from Ukip but lost other votes to the Tories.
Lord Ashcroft’s huge, 40,000 sample survey, released over the weekend, provides the most compelling evidence yet that that very few voters have returned from Ukip to Labour. Instead, many have moved onto the Conservatives. As a result, many Labour MPs, especially in the north and midlands, may lose their seats not because their vote falls but because their Tory challengers overtake them, as the main beneficiaries of Ukip’s collapse.
A better way to judge Labour’s performance is to look at its share of the two-party, Labour/Conservative, vote, rather than its share of the total vote. Under Miliband, Labour won 45 per cent of the two-party vote across Britain. Under Corbyn, its current share is just 39 per cent. That is the same as Michael Foot achieved in 1983, in Labour’s darkest post-war days. If that is where Labour ends up on 8th June, Corbyn may find it hard to persuade those of his party’s MPs who do survive this year’s election that his mandate to remain as their leader comes anywhere close to May’s mandate to run the country.
* Note for nerds: two figures are cited by different people for Labour’s vote share in 2015: 30.4 Per cent and 31.2 per cent. The lower figure relates to the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. The bigger figure relates to Great Britain, excluding Northern Ireland. The main, national opinion polls survey GB alone. So the relevant baseline figure, rounded to the nearest integer, is 31 per cent.
Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.