Don't trust the Labour poll surge – Jeremy Corbyn still won't win

The difficulty for Labour is on election day, when emotion about social care has abated but the image of Jeremy Corbyn with the keys to No 10 has remained

Benedict Spence
Friday 26 May 2017 09:42
General Election polls and projections: May 26

Before the events of Monday night, all anyone could talk about in Britain were polls. Labour had reduced the gap between themselves and the Tories to single digits following a disastrous couple of days for the Conservatives.

Theresa May’s manifesto ushered in a spectacular series of mistakes, including a reversal of position on social care reform, and a dreadful interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil. Suddenly, it seemed, Labour was back in the game, and party members had the polls to prove it.

Perhaps this wouldn’t strike one as being odd if many party members hadn’t for weeks been sharing a meme on the Internet of a quote by Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens. “Opinion polls”, it reads, “are a device for influencing public opinion, not a device for measuring it. Crack that, and it all makes sense.”

The problem with Hitchens’ statement is that opinion polls on politicians and policies are very different from each other. We tend to believe the polls that support our worldview, but some polls are more equal than others; public opinion of politicians tends to be a better .

When Labour plummeted in the polls, supporters sought solace in Hitchen’s words; they play into a narrative of Jeremy Corbyn being undermined by a shadowy establishment. The polls only show Labour doing badly, so the reasoning goes, because that is what pollsters want the public to think: that he is weak and unpopular, and not deserving of their vote. Hitchens probably didn’t mean it in quite this way, but it’s easy to see how a committed Corbynista may arrive at that conclusion.

Now that Labour is rising, that logic has been thrown to the wind. Labour supporters are falling for the exact thing their favourite Internet meme warns against.

As demonstrated by the so-called “dementia tax”, individual policies cause great fluctuations in opinion; if it affects someone negatively, of course they are going to be put out by it. However, except in very rare cases, this strength of feeling doesn’t endure. What does are views of politicians themselves; the difficulty for Labour is, on election day, when emotion about social care has abated, the image of Jeremy Corbyn with the keys to No 10 will remain. He has spent almost two years being portrayed as an old, cranky IRA "sympathiser", weak on security. That won’t disappear in a 6 week election cycle.

Something similar happened during the last general election; a steady Labour rise in the polls towards the business end of the campaign on the back of a manifesto, only for David Cameron to win a majority as voters, faced with the prospect of Ed Miliband in office, went for the "safer" option. No matter how good the Labour manifesto (and it was good, given how much of it the Conservatives has since nicked), Miliband couldn’t overcome the view that he just wasn’t "prime-ministerial".

Theresa May on Andrew Neil: PM not concerned by opinion polls

Labour shouldn’t be jubilant. All the recent polls indicate is dissatisfaction with a single policy; they don’t accurately reflect who the public think should run the country.

Fortunately for Labour, they aren’t the only ones to have fallen into this trap. The Tory campaign had been based entirely around personality, not policy, as they realised early on it was a winning strategy. Why, then, has May been so hasty to ditch keystone policies? Surely she should have used the above example to stick to her guns, safe in the knowledge that, though initially unpopular, on polling day, it would come down to a straight battle of personalities?

The answer is that May has lost her nerve, and that, potentially, undoes her single greatest advantage. The central position of her campaign was to be “strong and stable”, something now undermined by her readiness to perform erratic manoeuvres and reverse her position. This is potentially far more dangerous to her than Labour believing policies might overcome their leader’s lack of personality; it undermines the idea that May’s character is one of a tough, unflappable stateswoman.

Was it a mistake? Yes, voters would have forgiven her for her tough policies if she had remained consistent. Will it cost her? Quite possibly, but she has been thrown a wildcard; having proved so staunchly sceptical of all polling up to now, Labour have gleefully leapt on a series of favourable ones, setting themselves up for a fall.

If this most recent polling registers momentary dissatisfaction with one policy, rather than May as a candidate, then nothing much has changed; she should rely on the unpopularity of Corbyn to see her home, not risk damaging her own reputation on the whim of polls about policy.

If there’s one thing the last two years have taught us, it is that you should not trust the polls. As we enter the final straight, the two main parties have chosen to forget that lesson.

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