Politics & Policy

Labour’s Late Surge May Be an Illusion

Corbyn at a campaign stop in Manchester, June 3, 2017. (Reuters photo: Andrew Yates)
British polls are often wrong.

Britons are soldiering on after the terrorist attack that claimed seven innocent lives on Saturday. My friend Mary Toman, an investment banker, has lived in London and is there now for her daughter’s wedding. “After Londoners knew of the attacks there were still loads of people on the street, walking around like nothing had happened which makes a statement that the British won’t be cowed,” she told me in an e-mail. “A Brit fearful of attack is not seen as a true Brit. A very strong part of their culture.”

Of course, what goes for the man on the street isn’t always true in politics. Conservatives are panicking at some polls that show the race between their prime minister Theresa May and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn closer than ever. The election is being held this Thursday, and there are signs it has dramatically tightened since April, when May held up to a 20-point lead. There’s no way of knowing if recent terror attacks will affect the electorate.

Admittedly, the polls are all over the map. The Survation survey conducted for the Mail on Sunday newspaper gives the Conservatives 40 percent of the vote and Labour 39 percent. As recently as May 21, the Survation poll had the Tories up by 12 points over Labour.

Other polls show a mixed picture. YouGov gives Conservatives a 42 percent–to–38 percent lead, and ORB has a nine-point lead. Two other pollsters show a clear Tory lead — 11 points in the ICM survey and 12 in ComRes survey.

Of course, British polls are notorious for being error-prone of late. In the 2015 general election, none of them predicted the Conservatives under David Cameron would win an outright majority of seats in Parliament. They also missed a late surge of voters supporting Brexit in the June 2016 referendum. Polls over a long period of time have tended to overestimate Labour’s strength and underestimate the Tories’. Some call this the “shy Tory” effect, with voters taking a conservative stance reluctant to directly tell pollsters that fact. For example, Internet polls had the 2016 referendum results correct. It was the telephone polls that were significantly off.

Theresa May knows all this, but that didn’t stop her from what the Daily Mail called “going nuclear” in attacking Corbyn. She accused him of not being willing to use Britain’s nuclear Trident missile deterrent if he had to and preparing to usher in pro-union policies that could bring another round of strikes similar to the 1978–1979 “Winter of Discontent” that was so disruptive it is credited with contributing to Margaret Thatcher’s victory a few months later.

Outwardly, May’s approach to both the terrorist attack and the election is to “keep calm and carry on.” But behind the scenes, she is no doubt nervous that Corbyn appears to have shucked some of his “loony Left” persona and been an effective communicator.

If she is worried about a last-minute Labour surge, she should take comfort in some history. Last year, Charles Moore, the official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, published a fascinating account of her state of fright in the week prior to the 1987 election, which was held 30 years ago this week.

If May is worried about a last-minute Labour surge, she should take comfort in some history.

A few days before that vote, a couple polls saw the lead of Thatcher’s Conservatives falling to four points. This set off a mini-panic at 10 Downing Street. Moore talked to several witnesses who said Thatcher was uncharacteristically defeatist.

According to one onlooker, in a meeting with a group led by her party chairman, Norman Tebbit, she was “almost hysterical, with her arms sweeping everywhere.”

“Her eyes flashed: hatred shot out of them, like a dog about to bite you,” another said.

And she wasn’t the only one to become paranoid: “Norman, listen to me,” said David Young, a close Thatcher confidant, to Tebbit, shaking him by the shoulders. “We’re about to lose this f***ing election, you’re going to go, I’m going to go, the whole thing is going to go!”

Eventually, someone in the room summoned the courage to tell Thatcher and Young to shut up. A new, improved round of advertising was approved, and it turned out the “poll shock” was a wobble, not a trend. A final poll for the TV program Newsnight forecast a hung parliament, one in which no party had a majority. Even the BBC exit poll had the same forecast. In the end, it wasn’t even close. Thatcher’s Conservatives won 42 percent of the vote versus only 31 percent for Labour, good for a sizable majority. Thatcher herself never lost an election, only being forced from office in 1990 by an internal coup against her among Conservative members of Parliament.

Theresa May is no Margaret Thatcher, though she has a similar ability to tightly control her bureaucracy and work longer and harder than anyone in government. I suspect that despite last-minute polling jitters, May will be returned to office with a good majority. But the campaign has revealed some of her weaknesses — a superficial knowledge of business and economic issues, a willingness to engage in unseemly policy U-turns, and an excessive focus on secrecy.

If May heads back to 10 Downing Street, she would be well served to understand just why she ever had trouble defeating Jeremy Corbyn, and thus reevaluate her approach to both politics and policy.


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