The current polls are poor but electoral success will rely on a mass mobilisation campaign and increasing voter turnout
There have been a number of opinion pieces and blogs recently that have presented a very negative outlook on Labour’s chances at the general election in 2020. Glen O’Hara’s recent blog for SPERI drew on current and historic polling data to argue that Labour may be heading for a particularly heavily defeat in 2020. Professor O’Hara made this argument on the basis that Labour is polling rather badly today compared to its position at similar points when it has previously been in opposition. However, this may be an overly pessimistic prediction.
We should be wary of drawing conclusions from so few samples. O’Hara drew attention to six historic examples of Labour’s position in the polls and suggested that the party would need to be doing considerably better than it currently is to have a chance of winning in 2020. Yet these historic examples are not consistent. For example, Labour was ahead of the Tories by similar margins in 1971 and 1980 (leads of 7.5% and 8.2%, respectively), but then went on to win in 1974 and lose by a large margin in 1983. Furthermore, O’Hara made a direct comparison between Labour’s current polling and the party’s polling at the same point in the last parliament to suggest that Labour’s share of the vote could plummet as low as the mid-20s in 2020. Yet why this parliamentary cycle should be expected to follow the same polling trend as the last is not evident: no reasons are provided. In political analysis, the use of historic data to make predictions about the future requires large sample sizes to be significant. Six examples are simply unable to provide the kind of predictive power being sought here. To suggest that Labour could be expected to drop to the mid-20s or suffer a defeat heavier than that in 2015 seems unwarranted. In order to assess how Labour may perform in 2020 it is necessary to look more closely at the contemporary political circumstances it faces.
Currently Labour is performing badly in the polls. This performance should be viewed in the context of a particularly hostile media environment and public infighting within Labour between those who identify with the New Labour project and those who support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. These two issues are related to one another, with infighting contributing to negative media stories and poor performance in the media spurring on more infighting. The dominant image of the Labour Party is currently one that is rather negative, which is likely to be contributing to Labour’s poor poll ratings.
However, one of the key elements of the Corbyn strategy is a grassroots focused, mass mobilisation campaign. The strength of this kind of strategy lies in its ability to directly connect with people on the doorstep and to re-engage those who have stopped voting. Given the hostile media environment, a grassroots focused campaign is essential for Labour to get its message across. It also means the full effect of this strategy is only likely to be realised during actual election campaigns when both campaigners and voters are mobilised, and right now there is little evidence to go on. The recent by-parliamentary election in Oldham West offers some support to this campaign strategy. Many political pundits predicted Labour to do badly, potentially having their majority cut to 2,000 or fewer votes in what should be a safe seat. Instead, a strong campaign on the ground saw Labour increase its share of the vote and its majority. Of course, one by-election in a Labour safe seat cannot be looked into too much. Rather, it is the series of local elections, London mayoral election and devolved administration elections taking place in May 2016 that will really demonstrate the state that Labour is in.
The question still remains as to whether a grassroots focused campaign will be able to deliver the numbers Labour needs to win in 2020. A more left-leaning Labour Party appears unlikely to win over many who have previously voted Conservative, as New Labour sought to do. Rather, a Labour victory rests more on an activation strategy and increasing voter turnout. Since the New Labour period, turnout has declined quite dramatically, hitting a low of 59.4% in 2001. The 66.1% turnout seen in 2015 is still low by historic standards. To put this in context, from 1945 to 1997, turnout was on average 76.3%, around 10% higher than at last year’s election. This means recent governments have been elected with comparatively low numbers of total votes. The 11.3m votes won by the Conservatives in 2015 is the lowest the party has ever secured a majority government in the post-war period. If Labour is able to re-engage those who have been put off by politics and bring turnout back to the higher levels commonly seen in the latter half of the twentieth century, then the party would find itself in a very competitive position.
Recent events have demonstrated that many people who do not usually vote are still interested in politics and can be re-engaged with the electoral process when faced with salient political issues and large-scale campaign movements. This was seen in the Scottish independence referendum where turnout hit a record-breaking 84.6%. A lot of this energy continued into the 2015 General Election, where turnout in Scotland was 71.1%, 5 points higher than the overall UK level. Of course, it would be naïve to suggest Labour could mobilise the kind of campaign seen during the independence referendum or that turnout could be expected to be quite so high. Yet Labour is in a stronger position today to engage in this kind of mass movement campaign than it has been for almost two decades. Party membership has almost doubled since the 2015 General Election to almost 400,000 and new Labour-supporting campaign groups such as Momentum have been formed with a specific focus on connecting with people outside of the party.
In short, whilst the polls currently paint a pessimistic picture for Labour, the enhanced ability of the party to engage in a mass mobilisation campaign leaves some optimism. Ultimately, it is only actual electoral performance that will provide any solid indication of how Labour might perform in 2020. The good news is that we’ll have the first results by summer.