How Corbyn could reach Number 10

The polls seem to indicate that Labour will struggle to win. But their volatility means it is impossible to predict with any certainty what will happen. Here we examine how Mr Corbyn could end up as prime minister after the election.

November 07, 2019 10:26

Jeremy Corbyn’s path to Downing Street appears an unlikely one. Not only does Labour trail by double-digits in the polls, but on the two key determinants upon which the outcome of every general election in recent history has turned — who do voters want to see running the economy and who would they prefer to see in No 10 — the party is apparently nowhere to be seen.

Add to that the fact that Mr Corbyn has the lowest approval rating — a staggering minus 60 — of any opposition leader since polling began.

Mr Corbyn’s media cheerleaders are, of course, unfazed by such arguments. When Theresa May called her ill-fated election in April 2017, they argue, the Tories were further ahead in the polls and the-then prime minister herself had approval ratings which dwarf those of Boris Johnson, and equalled those of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair at the height of their popularity.

However, in the space of a few short weeks, Mr Corbyn managed to overhaul the Tories’ lead, coming from 20 points down to a deficit of just two percent and deprive Mrs May of her majority.

Now that the general election campaign is under way, pro-Corbyn commentators suggest, the Labour leader can work his magic again.

As in 2017, pre-election broadcasting rules will kick in, helping to drive up Mr Corbyn’s personal ratings, as attention focuses on what the Guardian’s Owen Jones terms Labour’s “unquestionably popular domestic agenda”. In the so-called “ground war” in marginal constituencies, Labour’s young, enthusiastic mass membership will also easily outperform the Tories’ smaller and older band of foot soldiers.

This critique, however, has a number of flaws. Mr Corbyn is no longer, as he was at the outset of the 2017 election, largely unknown to many voters.

While Boris Johnson’s political persona may no longer resemble that of the ‘Heineken candidate’ who twice won London’s City Hall, he can be counted upon to far outshine his awkward, wooden predecessor on the campaign trail.

Nor will the Tories be lumbered with a manifesto — described by the party’s strategist, Sir Lynton Crosby, as “worse than useless” — which appeared designed to repulse its home-owning, elderly base.

Labour was also aided by the fact that the 2017 election saw Remain voters coalescing around it in a bid to stop Mrs May’s emerging plans for a hard Brexit. But the party’s subsequent prevarication and splits on the issue have provided an opening which the Liberal Democrats have ruthlessly exploited.

YouGov polling now shows the Remain vote split, with 34 percent of those who backed staying in the EU in 2016 planning to support Jo Swinson, against 33 percent opting for Labour

But Mr Corbyn’s chances of making it to No 10 aren’t negligible.

The Labour leader may not be able to rekindle the spark he ignited in 2017, but his abilities as a campaigner — the energy he draws from largely supportive crowds — should not be under-estimated. In this regard, as in many others, Mr Corybn bears a certain resemblance to Donald Trump.

Mr Johnson may be more highly rated than the Labour leader but his popularity should not be overstated. His ‘honeymoon’ period with the country — the traditional bounce a new prime minister receives after taking office — is one of the weakest in the past 40 years. He has lower approval ratings after three months in Downing Street than any of his predecessors since Mrs Thatcher replaced James Callaghan in 1979.

It is, though, the sheer unpredictability and volatility of the coming contest which makes it foolish to dismiss Mr Corbyn’s chances.

The 2016 referendum fundamentally reshaped the country’s political landscape and geography. Who would have predicted five years ago that the campaign would commence with Mr Johnson defending the Nottinghamshire former coalfield seat of Mansfield, which, until 2017, hadn’t elected a Conservative MP in its 130-year history – or that Labour would be attempting to hold the once-staunchly Tory seat of Canterbury?

As Sir David Butler, the 94-year-old veteran pollster and analyst, suggested recently: “I have never felt more totally confused.”

The rest of the electorate appears to share his discombobulation. Recent findings

from the British Election Study revealed that in the three most recent general elections, only half of voters supported the same party each time. Thus in 2015, 40 percent of voters switched parties, with one in three changing sides when the country went to the polls two years later. There is every sign that the 2019 election will follow this pattern. According to a Populus survey late last month, 40 percent of people say they will switch from the party they backed in 2017.

This volatility is apparent in the opinion polls. Since mid-October, they’ve shown the Tories’ poll lead at anything between four and 17 percent. This matters: the former would point to another hung parliament, the latter to a three-figure Conservative majority.

A YouGov poll on Sunday which showed the Conservatives ahead by 12 points also indicated that Labour support had jumped by six percent in 48 hours. This may be the first sign, perhaps, of disenchanted Labour voters putting to one side their dislike of Mr Corbyn and “returning home” to the party.

The headline poll figures also disguise the extent to which many voters simply don’t know what to make of the choices on offer. Focus groups conducted by BritainThinks in September showed that when asked about the party leaders on a range of key measures, from who can best deliver growth to who best understands the needs of working people, Mr Johnson outpaced Mr Corbyn. But they also contained a startling statistic: on every single count, the public are most likely to say they don’t know which leader would be best.

It is against this backdrop that Mr Johnson’s much-sought general election will play out. He has brought the Tories’ back from their dire performance in May’s European election by ruthlessly squeezing the Brexit party vote. But this will potentially come at a cost.

In heavily Remain Scotland, the Tories look likely to lose to the Scottish National Party many of the 13 seats they surprisingly won in 2017 and which allowed Mrs May to stay in Downing Street. Similarly, the pollsters Collin Rallings and Michael Thrasher believe that the Liberal Democrats could easily snatch 30 seats — mainly from the Conservatives — in middle-class Remain voting areas of London and the south of England.

Mr Johnson’s plan is to offset these losses by making big gains in traditionally Labour Leave constituencies in the north and Midlands. This play for the vote of so-called ‘Workington Man’ is the same strategy which Mrs May pursued, largely unsuccessfully, in 2017.

Nigel Farage’s threat last week to stand Brexit party candidates throughout the country adds a further complication. Some pollsters, such as the Tory peer Robert Hayward, believe Mr Farage poses a bigger threat to Labour than he does to the Tories.

If he attracts the backing of some Labour Leavers who can’t stomach backing the Conservatives, Lord Hayward suggests, the Brexit party leader will enable the Tories to slip through the middle and win.

However, there is much evidence to suggest that the Brexit party damages the Conservatives more than Labour, with polling guru Sir John Curtice arguing that Mr Farage takes twice as many votes from the former than the latter.

That ratio, according to an analysis based on Electoral Calculus figures, could deprive Mr Johnson of nearly 40 seats, such as Bassetlaw, Ashfield and Bishop Auckland, he might otherwise have taken from Labour. In fact, suggest Mr Rallings and Mr Thrasher, a strong showing by the Brexit Party might even imperil the prime minister’s ability to hold the six gains — all Leave backing seats where Ukip’s strong vote in 2015 collapsed — the Tories made from Labour in 2017.

Mr Farage’s intervention might also, they believe, assist the Lib Dems in parts of the pro-Leave south-west where Jo Swinson is hoping to overturn narrow Tory majorities and win back seats her party held until its electoral massacre in 2015.

Although polls indicate that Leave voter are angry at the delays to Brexit, the prime minister has thus far escaped the blame for failing to deliver his October 31 ‘do or die’ pledge. Whether that remains the case after six weeks of bellicose attacks on him by Mr Farage is an open question.

The 2017 election turned into a straight fight between Labour and the Tories, who won a combined 80 percent of the vote. But this election opens as multi-party contest with only two-thirds of voters saying they currently intend to back the two main parties. Such a contest, with seats being won by slim margins on unusually small proportions of the vote, is inherently unpredictable.

Given Labour’s weak poll position and its loss in 2015 of its once reliable Scottish heartland, an overall majority for Mr Corbyn would require a massive upset. Stranger things have happened in recent years, as Donald Trump can attest. However, another hung parliament with SNP MPs opting to help the Labour leader into Downing Street is, perhaps, not the strangest.

November 07, 2019 10:26

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