Labour STILL has a mountain to climb

Last week’s by-elections were plainly terrible for the Conservatives – but they were not that great for Labour. To be sure, the party regained Wakefield. This was better than just holding on in Batley and Spen and losing Hartlepool last year. But was the Wakefield result good enough to suggest that Labour is on course for a clear majority at the next general election, as the party claims?

Er, no. The swing to Labour, 12.7 per cent was just enough if, repeated nationally, to secure a majority in the Commons. But Labour regained Corby in 2012 midway through Ed Miliband’s leadership on an almost identical swing. In the 2015 general election, the Tories recaptured Corby and gained ground nationally. Swings in by-elections are almost never repeated at the following general election.

Voting intention polls provide an extra warning. They currently put Labour around six points ahead of the Tories. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Labour was regularly far further ahead and still failed to win the following election. Likewise a decade ago, when David Cameron was Prime Minister. And last month’s local election confirmed the overall picture of only a narrow Labour lead nationally.

The evidence, then, is consistent. The following table suggests why Labour ought to be miles ahead – and why it isn’t. It assembles recent data from 12 charts buried unnoticed in YouGov’s website. It shows how the two main parties are viewed on a range of qualities that tend to matter to normal voters (that is, those not obsessed by Westminster infighting or detailed policy debates).

Source: YouGov
The data can be found here. Scroll down And click “load more”, keep scrolling and eventually the individual charts will start to appear in no particular order and mixed up with many others.

YouGov’s figures for the Conservatives are truly dreadful. If we had no other data, we would conclude that they are heading for a landslide defeat. Indeed, these figures are absolutely consistent with the three Lib Dem victories in the past year in normally safe Conservative seats. These have effectively sent powerful messages of protest to a Tory party in which they have completely lost confidence.
Now look at the figures for Labour.  Not as dreadful as the Tories, but still bad. On whether the party is strong or weak, Labour’s numbers are actually worse than the Conservatives. On only one quality, whether or not it cares for ordinary people rather than the select few does the party enjoy a positive net balance – and that’s not Keir Starmer’s doing. Caring was the one quality that voters saw in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.
Above all, when fewer than one in four voters say Labour is competent, the party has barely left the base camp of the mountain that Starmer has always accepted it has to climb.
At this point I’d like to present comparable figures from past mid-terms. Sadly, they don’t exist. But we do have Ipsos MORI’s long-term trends for voters’ overall views on Prime Ministers and leaders of the opposition. These are the figures 2 ½ years into parliaments since 1979.
* The latest figures available
Source: Ipsos MORI

Let’s pick out the lessons from those figures.
* Prime Ministers generally have significantly worse mid-term ratings than opposition leaders. The only exceptions have been 1981 (both terrible) and 1999 (Blair positive, Hague negative). The fact that Boris Johnson’s rating is worse than Starmer’s is par for the course, not in itself a reason to predict a Labour victory.
* The only two opposition leaders to win the following election had positive ratings in mid-term. Blair’s was a stratospheric plus 27; he went on to win by a landslide. Cameron’s was a modest plus six; he didn’t quite win a majority and needed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
* Neil Kinnock (in 1985) and Michael Howard also enjoyed modestly positive ratings (although Howard was the Tories’ new leader at the time and most voters had yet to form a view). Both men led their parties to defeat.
* The other four opposition leaders (including Kinnock in 1989) had negative ratings and all led their parties to defeat.
* Keir Starmer’s latest rating is not just negative, but the third worst of the nine opposition leaders in the table.
So: is Labour doomed? Not necessarily. Maybe Labour has yet to recover fully from the Corbyn years, and things might improve between now and the next general election. It’s also perfectly possible that Conservative unpopularity, together with tactical voting, could mean that Starmer becomes Prime Minister, even if Labour wins fewer seats than the Conservatives (as Ramsay MacDonald did when he became Labour’s first Prime Minister in 1924).
But facing a Prime Minister that most voters despise, and a governing party with such a catastrophic reputation, Labour should be aiming higher than that. And if Johnson is replaced, the Tories will have the opportunity to repair their brand image under a new leader. When senior Labour MPs tell us they are on course to win the next election outright, we shouldn’t believe them – and nor should they.