By Phil Burton-Cartledge
The polls of late have not looked good for either of the main two parties. According to the latest Survation offering on EU election voting intentions, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is on 30%, Labour on 24% and the Conservatives on 12%. We find similar moves in others. For instance, ComRes has Farage on 27%, Labour 25%, and the Tories 15%, and BMG with the Brexit Party on 26%, Labour 22%, and the Tories at 12% – behind the Liberal Democrats who posted 19%. The story for Westminster voting intention is not much better. IpsosMORI sees Labour on 27%, the Tories 25%, and the Brexit Party 16% while ComRes registered 27% for Labour, and 20% apiece for Farage and the Tories. Not since the initial polling for the old Social Democratic Party in 1981 have we seen the big parties so squeezed. What can we make of this politically?
The first thing worth remembering is these EU elections are what political scientists call second order elections. i.e. General elections, as far as the bulk of the electorate are concerned, matter more because the political complexion of a government has a direct impact on most voters’ lives. This is why turn out is usually much higher than every other type of election. It also means that those who do vote in second order elections are more likely to stray from their general election choice, either as a protest or because one isn’t so inclined to compromise. With Brexit front and centre in British politics, it’s therefore unsurprising to see the Brexit Party surging, and the LibDems and Greens do well. The truth of the matter is both where the Tories and Labour are concerned, their Brexit positions are suited to an election asking the question “who governs?” rather than a proxy referendum with of nowhere near the same level of consequence.
How then to explain Westminster polling that has the two parties well down and the others well up? Political polls are not forecasts, they are snapshots of what a sample of the public are thinking at a given point. At the moment, with EU election fever in the air and the challenger parties on the hype train. And so Brexit-related concerns are going to bleed over when people are asked about their general election intentions. This was not the case a month ago after Theresa May failed to get her Brexit deal approved, and the picture could look different again in 30 days times. Politics moves, and when a general election is called other issues are going to come into play. Yes, Brexit is likely to matter more than it did in 2017, but then again we don’t now what the specific issues are going to be, let alone who might be leading the Tories into it.
However, looking at the polls the arguments that Labour would be better off if it explicitly came out for remain, or at least adopted the demand for a second referendum, do appear to have some force. It is obvious the movements upwards for the Greens and the LibDems have attracted some Labour support. The question is if Labour changed its position, would it simply be the case of those votes coming back? Possibly, but not necessarily as many as one might think. Two general elections and repeat polling since, until recently, has put the LibDem core support at around the six to eight per cent mark and the Greens at around two. Assuming for a moment all the extra padding they’ve acquired came from Labour, it would put the party back to where it was not so long ago – between 35% and 40%. But not all of this is drawn from Labour. The local elections saw the LibDems take more local authority seats from the Tories than any other party. And, during council by-elections over the last couple of years, we’ve seen this pattern repeat itself with the Greens, also 39% of Tory voters supported Remain. Do we therefore expect that the majority of these voters, who supported David Cameron vs the pale pink social democracy lite of Ed Miiband, would suddenly switch to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour because he offered a second referendum? A few might, but to imagine the majority would is fanciful.
As this is the case, then we might be underestimating the number of Labour Leavers who have switched to the Brexit Party for the duration of this election. As is well known, about a third of Labour voters voted to leave the EU and most of them returned back to Labour at the 2017 general election. It could be the majority have decided to stay with Labour, but just as a significant chunk of LibDem/Green voters this time have a Tory background it would be foolish to suppose all the Brexit Party’s supporters are disgruntled Conservatives. Indeed, the fact George Galloway has come out for Farage, was credited by him in his interview for Tim Shipman’s All Out War for helping get the message into working class areas that would otherwise be no-go for the Leave campaign, and typifies a Bennist/sovereigntist trend in Labourist politics underlines the left are far from united on the EU. The question is in the context of these elections, if Labour had come out for remain or a second referendum whether even more, might more support be shed to Farage’s outfit? We cannot know for sure, but I would hazard a guess on both balancing out and Labour being more or less where it is where it is.
What’s true of Labour is true of the Tories. While it is obvious the polling shifts have hit their party harder, and Tory MPs are beginning to panic, I imagine some on the right, like your Boris Johnsons, Jacob Rees-Moggs, and Dominic Raabs are quite relaxed about it all. In a move no different to that of the Labour remainers, they look at the Tory vote, the miserable figures UKIP are attracting, the Brexit Party vote et voila, they add up to a potentially very big vote for the Conservatives if the new leader takes the party down the hard Brexit/no deal route. Unfortunately for them, there are Brexit Party voters willing to give Farage a punt in the context of an EU election who find the Tories utterly toxic and would never vote for them, Brexit or no Brexit. What is also might unfortunate is a cohort of former Tory voters who swung to UKIP between 2010 and 2015 who then came back to the Tories in 2017, lured by May’s promise of a hard Brexit delivered on time, who are going to mistrust the Tories in the future. By their actions they have, in their eyes, betrayed Brexit once and could do so again. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. And because the new Tory leader would try and capture this constituency, it means adopting sharp positions that would not be congenial to winning back large numbers of remain Tories. Regardless of the red baiting propaganda they put to use against Jeremy Corbyn.
The political lesson we should take from this is to go beyond the numbers polls report and get a feel for the shifting dynamics beneath them, of understanding politics for what it truly is: a complex of social relations pulling in different directions but ultimately condensing around interests variously articulated by political parties. That way we can appreciate nuance and, more crucially, build strategies to deal with matters as they are, not how they wish to be.