The 650 | 15th May 2017

What we learned from this weekend’s polls: Two party politics is back


The Conservatives maintain a commanding lead, Labour edges past Ed Miliband’s 2015 vote share, the Lib Dems flatline and Ukip’s collapse continues apace.

The Tory lead is holding up…

The more optimistic quarters of Labour’s activist base have taken heart from this weekend’s Opinium poll for the Observer, which had the party at a not unrespectable 32 per cent – higher than the 30.4 per cent Ed Miliband won in 2015. Less heartening, however, is the Tories’ unshakeable lead.

Our poll of polls has the Tories 17.5 points ahead on 47.6 per cent to Labour’s 30.1 – and no pollster has recorded a Conservative lead below 14 per cent since the start of this month. The big question now is whether the outfit we’re now contractually obliged to call Theresa May’s Team can start to consistently hit or indeed break the 50 point mark, something they’ve managed just once thus far (with ComRes on 20 April).

Doing so will depend on a) their ability to continue squeezing what’s left of the Ukip vote, b) their ability to keep enticing Labour switchers, and c), the continuation of the Lib Dems’ flatlining performance. While a) and c) look like dead certs on the basis of current polling, Labour’s resilience means chalking up mega-leads of 20 points or more consistently remains a tall order for the Tories.

Crucially, though, YouGov has the Tories leading Labour in every region of the country bar the north-west, where they tie with Labour on 42 points apiece, the north-east, where they trail by just two points, and London, where Labour lead by five points.

But even if the Conservatives don’t manage huge national leads in the polls, there remains the very real possibility (discussed at length by Stephen Bush here) that Labour’s ratings are artificially inflated by decent publicity – and that their eventual vote share will end up closer to the number of people who say Corbyn would make the best prime minister, which hovers consistently around 20 per cent.

The polls show a Tory victory is as close to inevitable as it could conceivably be. But they also underline that its scale is still up for debate.

…but so is Labour’s projected vote share

Despite the Conservatives’ commanding lead, this weekend’s polls were really rather good for Labour. ORB, Opinium and YouGov all had Corbyn’s party polling higher than the 30.4 per cent won under Ed Miliband in 2015, and our own poll of polls has them tantalisingly close to that golden number on 30.1.

These numbers – regardless of whether they’re accurate – are valuable grist to the Labour left’s Keep Corbyn mill. The two targets spoken of as the leader’s office’s internal criteria for staying on are retaining 200 seats or matching or exceeding Miliband’s vote share. With Labour running an energetic campaign, their uptick in the polls is unsurprising.

As ever with this sort of short-term oscillation, though, it would be unwise to assume this – for the moment at least – is anything but campaign noise. Concerns over Corbyn’s low personal ratings and the polls’ perennial tendency to overstate the Labour vote are by now so familiar that they barely need repeating.

But even if the polls are right, there’s only lesson Labour can learn from the Lib Dems: there are no guaranteed prizes for healthy vote share under first past the post. And that party’s more recent travails should spook Labour too – any improvement in Labour’s vote must be seen in the context of a straight two-party fight given the near-death of Ukip and the Lib Dems’ flatlining polling. By that measure, Labour are still in dire-ish straits.

Things don’t look good for the Lib Dems

What’s happened to the Lib Dem fightback? Tim Farron’s party are down to 9 per cent in our poll of polls – a mere single percentage point up on their 2015 result.

Their disappointing local election result (which I cover in more detail here) has seen media enthusiasm for the comeback narrative cool very quickly indeed, and with good reason. Despite increasing their share of the vote by seven per cent on 2013, the Lib Dems stood still in key general election battlegrounds like Cheltenham and finished the night with 42 fewer councillors than they started with. Farron tried his best to spin this as a positive – stressing that things were much worse for Labour – but he now has ample cause to be worried. The most likely scenario for the Lib Dems is a nightmare one – a modest increase in its vote share, but stasis or decline in terms of parliamentary representation.

There is no disguising that nine per cent is an ominously low number for this particular party at this stage of this particular election. But they bear out a concern I was hearing from Lib Dem activists, and more than one MP, as early as December: that the party’s rebranding as an inverse Ukip – the party of the 48 per cent – has neither reaped the electoral dividends it was expected to, nor won over enough Tory or Labour Remainers to have made it worth the reputational stain they have acquired by doing so.

As George Eaton has written, the biggest obstacle to this strategy is that the 48 per cent no longer exist. Analysis by YouGov’s Marcus Roberts – who wrote on the Labour manifesto for June2017 last week – lays bare the scale of the problem. Of the three tribes identified by Roberts – Hard Leavers, Hard Remainers, and Re-Leavers – the majority of the Tory remain vote is made up of the latter, who voted to remain but accept the result and believe May has a duty to enact it.

For all the talk of May’s born-again Brexiteer routine repelling pro-EU Tories, she holds on to a staggering 91 per cent of that group. They are making gains from “hard Remainers”, but, as their lacklustre recent polling shows, they are proving inconsequentially small. As things stand, that pretty much scotches the notion that June 8th would – or indeed could – be Richmond Park writ large in seats held by the Lib Dems pre their 2015 wipeout.

As the collapse in the 2015 Ukip vote continues apace – they have sunk to just five per cent in our poll of polls and were on just three per cent with YouGov this weekend – so the Lib Dems’ chances of fulfilling Farron’s aim of doubling the size of their parliamentary cohort.  There are three Lib Dem seats – Carshalton and Wallington, Southport and Richmond Park – where the Tories need only win a majority of 2015 Ukip voters to wipe out the incumbents’ slender majorities.

Facing electoral headwinds like this, it’s difficult to foresee anything but a net loss.

For Ukip, the only way is down

Having only broken 10 per cent once since May called the election, the only way is down for Ukip. After this weekend’s polling they sunk to 4.7 per cent in our poll of polls, and are back up to 5 per cent today only on account of an uncharacteristically high 6 per cent today’s ICM poll. Given their near-total local elections wipeout and much-diminished slate of candidates (337 versus 624 in 2015), there’s every reason to believe that their 2017 result could end up closer to the 3 per cent they polled with YouGov on Sunday – their lowest with that pollster since 2012 – than our current average.