Sunday, 26 March 2017
No, Labour was not neck and neck with the Tories before the 'coup'
All political tribes live by myths and legends. Labour always talks about how Nye Bevan founded the National Health Service. The Conservatives put up paintings of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. There are probably few depths of bathetic silliness that such conjuring tricks cannot case in a warm glow. No doubt one day, Brexiteers will thrill around camp fires to the Tale of Two-Faced Boris and How He Slew His Friend. Or Gove the Brave, and How He Slew His Friend. Anyway, we digress.
The point is that it's perfectly natural for political movements, parties, even fragments of both or either, to tell themselves stories. They gee up the faithful. They encourage the doubters. Problems only really emerge when this process is either deliberately hothoused, like tulips in winter, by leaders who should know better. Or when those tales prevent the group seeing themselves, even for a moment, as they truly are or as others see them. Gods are fine. False gods? Not so much.
So it is with one of the most pernicious political myths of our time: that the UK Labour Party was 'neck-and-neck' with the Conservative Party (or might even have occasionally edged into the lead) in opinion polls running up to last year's European Union referendum. That there was then a deliberate 'coup' mounted by Labour MPs which so damaged Labour that the progress it was making - its emerging parity with the Government - was wiped out by a string of Shadow Cabinet and Front Bench resignations, a long leadership contest and a lot of bad, bad political blood. You can read this line as pushed by Left-wing pressure group Momentum here. You can read the reported remarks of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on the matter here. Here's a good example of a left-wing blog (from last year) saying the same thing. Here's Paul Mason from last summer, saying that Labour and the Conservatives were 'neck and neck' then.
There's one main glaring problem with this view: it isn't true. Labour was certainly never ahead, and the most respected experts in the field have baldly judged that '[the] frequent claims that Labour were equal to (or even ahead of) the Tories before Labour’s leadership troubles erupted... [are] disingenuous... at best, and seem... to rest wholly upon cherry-picking individual polls'.
Now let's leave aside the vexed question of the word 'coup' here. Probably there were some elements of a 'coup' about the whole thing. Quite a lot of Labour MPs had been waiting for some way to overturn the party's new-old dispensation, and in the immediate aftermath of the Remain campaign's failure thought they had found it. But the 'riot of despair' that overtook the Parliamentary Labour Party had so, so many more elements to it, reaching all the way from the Leftest of the Soft Left to the hardest of Blairites, that 'coup' is a vastly inadequate and misleading term for it. Maybe we'll write about that at more length someday.
Let's focus instead on the polling numbers, and the logic behind them. First, take a look at the chart above. This is all the polling from the calendar year 2016, showing the main two parties' ratings on a six-poll rolling average. The first thing we see? The Labour line never touched the Conservative line. They were not 'neck-and-neck'. The reason we use the average from many polls is that polls are subject to so-called 'normal' error: if two parties were truly about as popular as one another, you would expect quite a few showing the red team three points ahead, and about the same number showing the blue team three points up, as well as quite a few in between and many others showing a dead heat. Did we ever, ever see that? No, we did not.
There were only ever three polls that showed Labour ahead of the Conservatives. These were all reported by the polling company YouGov, on 17 March, 12 April and 26 April. They showed Labour ahead by one point, and then twice by three points. There was one more poll that showed the two parties dead level, carried out by Survation for The Mail on Sunday and published on 25 June. That's it. All the other polls, for the whole of the first half of the year leading up to Hilary Benn's sacking in the early hours of 26 June, showed Labour behind. That's simply not the pattern you'd see if parties were truly 'neck-and-neck'. Case closed.
Case-even-more-closed, point one: Labour's slide did not begin on 26 June. Rather, it had begun more than two and a half months earlier. Labour's poll rating 'peaked' at an average of 33.7% on 1 April: it had already fallen to 31.2% by 26 June. The smallest average Conservative lead was one per cent, registered on 12 April: this had already opened up slightly, to 2.7%, by the time the Shadow Cabinet began to disintegrate in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. Not only that, but this was but one more passage in Labour's medium-term collapse, having peaked at nearly 43% in the immediate wake of George Osborne's catastrophic 'Omnishambles Budget' during the spring of 2012. Their average now? About 27%, on a glidepath that hasn't seen great big dramatic falls in support, but a slow, gradual, painful retreat that suggests structural, not directly political (and certainly not high political) causes.
Cause-even-more-closed, point two: yes, Labour did get quite near to the Conservatives in the spring (not the summer) of 2016. But that was not due to any great surge in enthusiasm for socialism, Parliamentary or otherwise. The reason we've just put the word 'peaked' in quotation marks is that 33.7% was an absolutely pathetic rating for Britain's main Opposition, as we noted at the time. Such a polling number always suggested, on a historical basis and using the very best numbers we could scratch up, a pretty bad defeat. That closer gap that we see from late March to late June 2016? That looks rather like a quick Conservative tumble from around 38% on the eve of Mr Osborne's 2016 Budget (delivered on 16 March) to 33.5% at the moment of the Brexit vote. It looks, in that context, less like a surge in Labour's support, which went up by less than two points between the period immediately preceding the Budget to its molehill-like 'peak' on 1 April.
None of which should be a surprise. Because what had happened in the interim? Oh, just the matter of the most popular Conservative politician in the country coming out against the Conservative Prime Minister's flagship policy on Europe. And the Chancellor's Budget cutting benefits for disabled people, causing the Work and Pensions Secretary to resign. And the Conservative Party (including the Cabinet itself) tearing itself apart over Brexit. Oh, and the Prime Minister admitting that he'd used a tax haven for a family inheritance. That's all. And the Conservatives, by the way, still couldn't throw away their polling lead.
So those posts on Facebook that you see, saying that 'if only it hadn't been for the coup, we'd have been okay'? Those Twitter eggs that pop up telling you that Labour were toe-to-toe with the Tories in the spring of 2016? They are reflecting densely-woven webs of spin shot out by long-serving politicians who should know better, and they are telling not stories but fairytales - all the better not to see themselves with. Actual history, written by actual historians, says something very different.
Yes, we're wasting our breath - we usually are - but Labour was not, ever, 'neck-and-neck with the Tories before the coup'. If anyone says they were, you can link to this page. You can paste up this blogpost. You can quote these figures. You can send them to us. Don't mention it. It's a public service.