Theresa May’s campaign falters, but should we believe the polls?

By Charlie Cadywould
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2 June 2017
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This week Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went head-to-head with senior figures from six other parties in a prime-time debate on the BBC. While few keen observers will have learned anything new from what was largely a shouting match, the main point of contention was Theresa May’s absence. Attendance – Corbyn’s surprise decision to join and the Prime Minister’s continued refusal – was the lead story for much of Wednesday, and May’s no-show continued to be the dominant angle presented on the BBC 10 O’clock News and in many of Thursday morning’s papers.

Tory wobbles

While I doubt this will directly change the way anyone votes on 8th June, it will cut through and feed into a new narrative about Theresa May’s leadership. Millions will have tuned into the debate – either deliberately or by accident before switching over to Britain’s Got Talent – and asked: where is she? When the whole of the Conservative campaign has, until this week, been built around Theresa May being ‘strong and stable’, people will notice now that she appears to be running scared. The lack of substance in their manifesto, the absence of any tantalising new tax cuts or spending promises – or costings for any of the pledges that are there – means there is little to fall back on now that Theresa May’s personal brand has been damaged.

Make no mistake: Theresa May’s team has miscalculated badly. The trajectory – indeed the very existence – of this campaign is entirely of their own making, and unless significant gains are made she will be facing tough questions on June 9th about whether it was worth all the trouble.

On Labour’s terms

On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn has had a surprisingly steady campaign. It’s easy to say now with hindsight, but his ratings were so bad at the start of the campaign that perhaps some recovery should not be surprising. Expectations were so low, both within the commentariat and among the general public, that a middling performance in the Channel 4 hustings was greeted with enthusiasm, while the disastrous interview he gave on Woman’s Hour the next morning appears to have been ‘priced in’; few are surprised when it happens so it doesn’t have the shock factor to really go viral and dominate the headlines.

Other features of the campaign appear to be playing to Labour’s strengths too. The Conservatives’ lack of manifesto costings makes it harder to portray Labour as spendthrift. While Labour’s 2017 manifesto is clearly to the left of its 2015 offering, it doesn’t contain many of Corbyn and McDonnell’s more controversial policy preferences (the manifesto commits to maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent). Concerns about Corbyn’s commitment to security and counter-terrorism are ‘priced in’. Moreover, this is not the ‘Brexit election’ both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats want it to be. We have learned very little about how a Labour government would approach the Brexit negotiations, and Corbyn’s ‘free movement would end’ line has not really been subjected to scrutiny.

The war of expectations

The open question remains whether a good Labour campaign and a terrible Conservative campaign will actually change how people vote, or whether the fundamentals established over a much longer period haven’t changed. For example, while the percentage of people who say they would prefer Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister than Theresa May has risen – in some polls doubled – it is still far lower than the percentage saying they intend to vote Labour. One Labour activist, who has been canvassing in an overwhelmingly white, working class seat in the midlands, told me: “a few weeks ago I was getting grief about Corbyn every third doorstep – now it’s only every fourth.”

Faced with the seemingly obvious truth that Theresa May would retain her majority after the election, many Corbyn-sceptic Labour supporters might have stuck with Labour. But if the narrative now changes to the possibility of a hung parliament, as YouGov is now projecting based on current voting intention data, it’s possible that many of these voters will return to the Conservatives or stay at home on polling day. If the narrative does change (though so far it hasn’t – just 8 per cent say they expect a hung parliament), the Conservatives could return to their 2015 attack on Labour as a party that would be held to ransom by the Scottish nationalists in government. The fear of that ‘coalition of chaos’ worked well in marginal seats last time around.

Should we believe the polls?

There is also huge disparity in the current opinion polls, largely due to methodological differences, and particularly how to estimate turnout among different age groups.

Age appears to be the fundamental divide at this election. In some cases Labour has a 60 percentage point poll lead over the Conservatives among under 25s, while they trail by almost as much among those aged 65 and over. Young people lining up behind Labour is also the main cause of the narrowing of the polls since the election was called, with much smaller gains among older people.

Moreover, young people answering these surveys are reporting that they are extremely likely to turn out to vote – at far higher levels than in 2015 or the 2016 referendum. Of course, it may be that young people, excited by Corbyn’s vision, really are intending to turn out in much higher numbers than previously, but there are good reasons for caution.

First, in 2015 youth turnout ended up being much lower than indicated in these surveys, contributing to the polling miss at that election. Those pollsters that weight responses solely on the basis of self-reported likelihood to vote are showing much narrower Conservative leads than those which weight their estimates according to how many people of each age bracket turned out last time. The latest ICM poll, for example, shows a 12-point lead, which could give the Tories a majority of over 100.

Second, even weighting to assume 2015 levels of youth turnout doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Last time around, the problem was not so much that young people said they would definitely vote and then didn’t, it was that young respondents in these surveys were disproportionately politically engaged compared to the general population. It’s possible, though of course it is purely speculation, that Corbyn is doing extremely well among students and more affluent and well-educated young people (perhaps motivated by Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees), but not necessarily cutting through with the rest of the young population. This may not be reflected in the polls if they are failing to gather a representative sample of young people.

Finally, even if young people do turn out in record numbers, it is not clear that this would result in substantial seat gains for Labour. 18 to 24 year olds are very geographically dispersed – there are just 15 seats where they make up more than 20 per cent of the population. I have previously shown how even if youth turnout were to increase significantly, it alone would not significantly affect the number of seats distributed to each party.

Closer to power?

What appears to be happening over the short campaign is that Labour has firmed up its base, and is even gaining slightly from the Greens and Lib Dems. 2015 UKIP voters are leaving the party in droves, with a few coming back to Labour, and higher turnout could help Labour’s vote share further. As a result, the polls have narrowed, but Labour is still failing to take any net support from the Conservatives despite their inept campaign. The vote share figures flatter Labour in part because Britain has effectively returned to a two-party system: as a percentage of the two main parties’ vote share, despite the recovery Labour is still polling barely above its 1983 and 1987 electoral disasters. While a hung parliament is now a possibility (the current odds are 7/1), it could be that Corbyn’s strategy, successful as it has been in shoring up the base, has a ceiling which doesn’t end up with Labour in government.

The most extreme predictions of doom for the Labour party have not come to pass. The party has remained publicly united through the course of the campaign, and the Lib Dems have failed to use their positioning on Brexit to erode Labour’s base. There remains a huge amount of uncertainty, projections range all the way from a hung parliament to a net loss of 100 seats for Labour. What no longer seems in doubt, though, is Labour’s ability to fight another day.

Image credit: 1000 words/Shutterstock.com