Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Reading the polls

Extrapolating the results of a local council by-election to draw conclusions about the state of the parties nationally is a fool’s game. Last week’s by-election in Witney town council is a case in point. No sooner had Labour supporters begun celebrating our 67 per cent landslide in a Tory ward in David Cameron’s own backyard, it was pointed out that the Tories had failed to field a candidate and turnout had been very low. The main lesson from the Witney by-election is that the easiest way to beat the Tories is to stop them fielding candidates!

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There were, however, two other interesting findings last week from which we can draw more serious lessons.

The first was a poll published on Conservative Home that showed, for the first time, voting intentions in a contest between the Labour party and joint Tory-Lib Dem coalition candidates. The poll, which placed Labour on 45 per cent against the coalition’s 38 per cent, revealed that 83 per cent of Tory voters would support a joint candidate, but only 32 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters would do the same. The poll, which placed the joint coalition ticket down by nine per cent compared with the two parties standing separately, will do much to aid the the Tory right – currently reeling from suggestions that the coalition could become a permanent feature of British politics. It should also be a reminder to the Liberal Democrat leadership that while the public are pretty happy with the idea of parties working together in the national interest, the overwhelming majority of their voters do not want the Tories in government. However cosy the consensus between Cameron and Clegg, the coalition remains a creature of Westminster rather than a state of mind in the country.

This seeming lack of predictable tribalism among voters should also be taken on board by those attempting the argue their case for or against the Alternative Vote on the basis of presumed party advantaged and voting behaviours. There has been a tendency among supporters on both sides of the argument to make lazy assumptions about how voters may (or may not) choose to use their transfers, as if they were delegates on the floor of the National Union of Students’ conference in the 1970s, following a clear line from national organisers. One of the reasons I support AV is that it will require political parties to engage in a conversation with every voter in an attempt to garner first and second preferences. There should be no ‘no-go areas’ for Labour.

The other interesting finding last week came from the latest in a series of focus groups being conducted by Deborah Mattinson with swing voters in Harlow. Mattinson confirmed that while the voters were ‘angry and anxious’, their ‘ire was reserved for Clegg’ with David Cameron emerging ‘relatively unscathed’. This, combined with two polls over the weekend showing Labour enjoying a comfortable lead in Oldham East and Saddleworth, will come as good news to Debbie Abrahams and her campaign team as they seek to hold on to a super marginal seat in rather extraordinary circumstances. But this is not a strategy for winning the country.

Once the dust settles on the Oldham by-election – and hopefully Debbie Abrahams is sworn in as Labour’s newest member of parliament – Labour needs to turn its guns on the Tories and their leader. Our alternative vision for the country must be compelling enough to ensure that the millions of voters Labour has lost since 1997 are inspired to turn out and support us once more. But while many of these will be those who abstained or voted for smaller parties, including the Liberal Democrats, we should not pretend that we haven’t lost votes to the Tories as well.

If we’re to win back power and win big – particularly if the election is fought with AV – our strategy must be grounded in three realities: that voters are not as tribal as us; that the swing voters of places like Harlow are yet to be convinced that David Cameron is as bad as we think; and that we have yet to offer a sufficient alternative. Ed Miliband has enjoyed a more successful first 100 days than he is sometimes given credit for, but he faces quite a challenge to make progress in these areas in 2011. 

Photo: secretlondon123

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Wes Streeting MP

is member of parliament for Ilford North


  • “Labour needs to turn its guns on the Tories and their leader” Hmm unfortunate choice of words given the current debate about violent political language after the events in Arizona.

  • Of course it made a big difference that the Tories didn’t stand (although they had created the vacancy by their councillor being disqualified – and then said the voters should wait till May; a typical instance of local Tory arrogance). But let’s not be too flip about it. Why didn’t those who did vote (btw, the Tory-controlled council refused to issue polling cards too which helps explain the low poll) go for the LibDem candidate? That’s one important lesson on which to reflect, which is relevant to your broader argument. Another lesson, equally important, is that a huge amount of effort, from Witney comrades and from Oxford East (where Andrew Smith had such a spectacular success last year in holding his seat) was put into the Labour campaign, and it paid off. We won’t always win but we can always do better with really good organisation on the Oxford East model and hard work.

  • Looks like Guido is right. If any Libdem/Conservative candidate gets hurt in the next 6 months it will be your fault for using violent rhetoric. But then you lefties are natural killers anyway–Stalin, Mao Tse Tong, Pol Pot, Hitler, Blair.

  • Dead right Wes, and I say that as the successful candidate in the Witney by-election. For a fuller description of why the turnout was so low see conspiracy of secrecy including local papers reporting voters should vote on Friday, no polling cards issued, Conservative local councillors keeping it quiet and not fielding a candidate. Local paper already archived result on its website. I got more votes than my Tory predecessor when she was first elected so the local underplaying of the result is entirely bogus. What it shows is IT ISN’T ALL ABOUT WESTMINSTER. Local work, local issues, matter just as much. The concern I have is that all our subs go into the national black hole and so little to the regions to build the party for success. That’s what we need to address and what isn’t recognised inside the village. What do other members think?

  • Simon, as in Simple Simon? Hitler was left-wing was he? So was Franco, Mussolini, the Argentinian junta and, recently, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. The 83% of Tories that voted Tory in May and would do so again seems to have remained unchanged since the YouGov poll some months ago. The interesting finding of that poll was the fact that Cameron was in deficit: more were against his government than for it, while a similar poll carried out in 1997 found the Blair government in surplus: more in favour than against. It is interesting to note,even from dyed in the wool Tories and Lib Dems of my aquaintance, that some of those that voted Tory and Lib Dem in May did not vote for the Coalition Party. Sounds like an excuse to me. Can Cameron’ popularity survive the increases at the petrol pump?

  • Of course Hitler was not a socialist, many socialist ended up in concentration camps, the BNP think themselves socialist of courses they are not. God help us why do we always end up asking the same stupid questions about socialism. Hitler was mad as mad as a hatter he was not socialist

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