In November 2017, after a YouGov poll gave Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour a three-point lead over the Tories, Tony Blair memorably lamented how the opposition should be “20 points ahead”. For the former prime minister, this was because Theresa May’s administration was in “a greater degree of mess” than any government he could ever remember.
This was all, of course, before Covid-19 – a crisis which has seen Britain suffer the worst death rate, deepest recession and highest budget deficit of any major country. Yet despite a sequence of screw-ups which goes beyond anything May was ever responsible for, the Tories are now increasing their lead over Labour in the polls. The reason why is simple enough: the government is finally getting something right when it comes to the pandemic, with the country’s ongoing vaccination programme so successful that even 84% of Labour voters think it is doing a good job.
While Blair’s words became something of an article of faith amongst centrist thought leaders at the time, they have since been appropriated by the left as an ironic retort to any poll which shows Labour’s inertia. Beyond an easy laugh, there’s an important point here: Keir Starmer is yet to enjoy a meaningful poll lead despite Britain experiencing its worst crisis since 1940. Worse still, any gains Labour made over the summer now appear to be in retreat.
In fairness to Starmer, the Labour leader inherited a serious polling deficit, he has made ground in the last ten months, and the next general election is likely three years away. The mockery of the ‘shitpost left’, however, imparts an important corrective: winning power is a huge task for Labour, regardless of who is in charge.
But beneath the headline data of recent polls, something else is happening. While the government has enjoyed a clear bounce since Christmas, the extreme polarisation of the electorate in terms of age has barely changed since 2019.
Two polls published this week underscore this point. One by YouGov gave the Tories a four-point lead over Labour, who were down four, and put both the Greens and the Lib Dems on 6%. This rise for the Green party rests almost entirely on its appeal to the young, with 12% of 18-24 year-olds backing the party – the same percentage that support the Tories. Meanwhile, Labour enjoys the support of more than 50% of this age bracket – reflecting Keir Milburn’s hypothesis that Gen Z is in fact ‘generation left’.
Another poll by Ipsos Mori revealed almost identical findings: a four-point lead for the Tories over Labour, with the government up one from December and the opposition down three. As with YouGov’s results, the Green party appears to have benefited most from Labour’s slump, polling at 8% – slightly higher than the Lib Dems.
What’s more, while Starmer has been at great pains to distance himself from Corbyn, the polls show he’s so far failed to expand Labour’s support base beyond absorbing Lib Dem voters. Only 4% of those who voted Tory in 2019 would now vote Labour, with 2% going the other way. Meanwhile, Labour remains well behind both the Tories and the SNP in Scotland. If it fails to make headway on either front, the party simply won’t be able to form a majority government.
This state of affairs is eerily reminiscent of the period before the 2015 general election, when the party’s concern about losing left-wing voters to the Greens prompted it to set up a unit to address the threat. The Greens polled as high as 7% in the final weeks of the campaign, and ultimately won more than a million votes. What’s different now is that Ukip – which managed to win almost four million votes in 2015 – is no longer a force to Labour’s right, and has been almost entirely subsumed by the Tories.
But while the headline figures are bad for Starmer, a progressive agenda – opposing austerity, ending outsourcing, electoral reform and a Green New Deal – has broad and growing appeal. As Labour fails to woo Tory voters, the only viable strategy will become increasingly obvious: to forge an electoral pact around constitutional reform, a second referendum on Scottish independence – with a ‘devo-max’ option – and a state-led transition to a zero-carbon economy.
If this strategy doesn’t beat the Tories in 2024, then its chances of success will only rise thereafter (given the breakdown of voters by age). What’s more, while Corbyn’s supporters were repeatedly framed as obsessed with hierarchy, the opposite is true: in 2019, 76% of Labour members favoured a move to proportional representation, and since then more than 150 CLPs have passed motions in its favour. On this issue, at least, they are no different to supporters of either the Greens or Lib Dems.
Another glimmer of hope for Labour is that Boris Johnson only enjoys a clear lead as preferred prime minister amongst over 65s. Starmer, meanwhile, has a lead of 30 points amongst those aged 18-24, and 10 points amongst those aged 25-49. At the same time, however, the Labour leader has an approval rating of -13% among those aged 25-34. This indicates that those most likely to plump for Starmer over Johnson don’t necessarily think the former is doing a good job – and that many who want to vote Labour aren’t excited by the party’s current direction. Take them for granted for much longer, and Labour’s gentle retreat could become a slide.
The answer to Labour’s problems isn’t to double down on attacking the left within the party, or admonishing the Greens or even the Lib Dems. It’s to set out an electoral offer that will appeal to ‘generation left’ in 2024 – and to do it now. Anything less, and Keir Starmer’s fate would appear relatively obvious. Just ask Ed Miliband.