Should Labour be further ahead in the polls?

We may be living through a volatile, unpredictable political era but there is little evidence of it in recent opinion polls. Since last June’s election, they have moved only slightly towards Labour and another snap election would likely produce a very similar result. Such is the inertia that pundits feel compelled to comment on 1% swings either way. The betting has barely moved in months, with Labour now 1.93 favourites to win Most Seats, with the Conservatives on 2.14.

A more interesting discussion involves thinking ahead. There is no election on the horizon and conditions will inevitably be very different when it does arrive. The big question, therefore, is whether Labour’s positive trajectory will continue, or whether they are vulnerable to a Tory comeback. The answer is far from straightforward.

Under Corbyn, Labour support has a low ceiling

Although the commentariat has been repeatedly proved wrong about Jeremy Corbyn, most pundits remain hugely sceptical. They argue that, regardless of his and Labour’s progress during 2017, Corbynism has a low ceiling which has already been reached.

According to this analysis, Labour should be much further ahead at this stage of the cycle given the government’s travails. It notes Corbyn’s stubbornly poor personal ratings – he consistently trails the hapless Theresa May for best PM – and deep public distrust of Labour’s economic competence. The government will recover and, when May is inevitably replaced, the Tories will regain the lead.

Proponents of this theory – including Tony Blair – point to most previous electoral cycles when governments did indeed recover, and note that Labour lost three elections on the bounce during the 1980s and 1990s, despite substantial mid-term leads. Before Blair became PM in 1997, he regularly held leads in excess of 15%. So too David Cameron’s Conservatives before winning power in 2010.

The UK party system has fundamentally re-aligned this century

Regardless of the personalities and differences in their particular Labour agendas – which may or may not be relevant – that theory cannot simply be applied to a very different era. No analysis of recent election shocks is complete without reference to the transformation of our party system.

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