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).