Economics and politics - comment and analysis
30. May 2017 I Will Denayer I Europe, General, General Politics

Can Labour win the general election?

May is worse than Thatcher

With nine days to go to the election, can Labour win? I think it cannot. Labour is surging in the polls at a completely unexpected pace. The reasons for this surge are complex. Labour is having a very good, even excellent, campaign. The same cannot be said about the Tories. May campaigns on the basis that she, being “strong and stable”, is the right person to “negotiate” a deal with the EU, but she refuses to meet Corbyn for a debate, how strong and stable is that? The so-called dementia tax was a first rank electoral blunder, as many over 55s vote for the Tories. The perpetrator of the attack in Manchester, Salman Abedi, had been tipped off as radicalised and dangerous to MI5 by his neighbours, his friends and his family. He had been banned from his mosque. But MI5 did nothing. Who bears political responsibility for that? When Corbyn said the UKs participation in wars in the Middle East (“intervention” in policy parlance instead of “killing”) have made people in the UK more unsafe, he was once again branded as a loony pacifist, who is soft on terrorists and cannot be trusted on foreign policy, among others by Boris Johnson, who – characteristically – forgot he had said exactly the same on some previous occasion. In fact, May and MI5 had said it also. May knows that Corbyn is right about foreign policy. Daniel Read is completely right in calling May’s position one of base hypocrisy: one cannot sell weapons to the Saudi’s and see no relationship to any violence, here or anywhere else (see here).


Picture 1: Corbyn presents the Labour Manifesto (Source PA Images). 

There are, of course, other factors, but it is uncertain which role they will play on election day. Today, 2.8 million disabled people live in deep poverty in the UK. Deep poverty means that they are 50% below the median income. Welfare “reforms” and work assessment programs have led to thousands of claimant deaths. Will this play a role? The Tories stand for the crisis of the NHS, which they created as a matter of policy (and no one believes otherwise), and for biting cuts in education. Their policies constitute major threats to civil liberties and to democracy itself (see here). They are directly responsible for the disgraceful spike in inequality in the UK. There will soon be more people in poverty in May’s Britain – 15.7 million – than there were ever in Thatcher’s Britain. There are almost one million more children in poverty today than in the darkest days of Thatcher and Major.

In six years of Tory rule, the UK’s national debt has risen by £595 bn. What do the Tories stand for, apart from their unbearable hypocrisy (‘we are all together in this’)? They stand for even more austerity, more privatisation, the privatisation of the NHS, deeper cuts in social welfare and, of course, restrictions to immigration. This last factor – immigration – is seen as especially important by several commentators. UKIP is now a dead party. The thesis that the great majority of UKIP voters migrated to the Tories is not in doubt. However, when asked for the reasons to vote for the Conservatives, less than 6% of the respondents cite migration as a first choice.

Then there is the Brexit. It has been my position for a long time that Labour cannot win a general election if it does not make a U-turn on the Brexit. It is too late now. It is very simple. The social democrats need Scotland to win the election. They need, say, 20 t0 25 seats at the minimum. They have 1 at the moment, after Miliband lost 40 out of 41 in 2015. But Scotland cannot be turned around by a party that supports the Brexit. Labour is remarkably popular with the younger generation (the 24 to 35 years old ones). Many of these people understand that austerity and conservatism bring the UK a lot of things they do not like and certainly not rising living standards. Corbyn’s proposal to abolish college tuition is important and positive. But here again there is the same problem. Many in this age group are uncompromisingly pro EU. Of course, the Labour strategists know all of this. They assumed that Labour turning around would result in immediate political suicide. Instead, according to them, Labour has to lie down on the Brexit and campaign on the basis of its manifesto. It has to be said that this manifesto proposes really decent policies (see here and here).

Nothing can be changed anymore now. Labour is going to the elections as a party that supports the Brexit. Who are the left leaning, pro remain social democrats supposed to vote for? How many hundreds of thousands of people, many Labour members among them, struggle with this question at the moment?

What are polls worth?  

According to the latest polls, Labour is now less than 5% behind. It might be true. Yes, I see machination behind it. The more polls say that Labour is coming closer, the more right wingers will make it to the polling station on June 8th. The Tories have been emphasising that ‘nothing is certain’ and that ‘we can lose’ since May still led by 10% or more. Last month, before the local elections, pollsters predicted that Labour could end up losing some 100 seats. The extreme pessimist who predicted that it was not altogether out of the question that Labour could lose 150 seats was not taken serious. Labour lost 382 seats. What are the polls worth?

Most pollsters also predicted Miliband to win in 2015. But methods have been adjusted in the meantime. To give an example, pollsters produce alternative voting intention figures by reallocating “undecideds”, who say they will vote, according to who they say would make the better prime minister. With this adjustment, the Tories were until recently increasing their lead (see here).

No one knows the exact effect that Corbyn will have on the youth vote. Perhaps Corbyn will encourage more young and disengaged people to vote than the pollsters’ turnout models expect. No one knows what the effect of the social care fiasco will be for the Tories – turnout rates among older people are usually high. For many months, May’s leadership was perceived as strong and Corbyn’s leadership as weak. Corbyn’s failure to command the support of his MPs has been especially damaging. But now this is also turning around: May sounds like a broken record and Johnson will never say anything which is not a cliché, a lie or just utter stupidity – great material indeed to “negotiate” the European divorce. Meanwhile, Corbyn attracts big crowds.

The ‘left liberal’ Guardian and the press

Corbyn has few friends. The news that the “unelectable” Corbyn has dramatically closed the gap with the Tories is not even front-page news for the Guardian. In one of the most important elections of a lifetime, Corbyn has narrowed the Tories’ lead from an impossible 22 points to 5. It looks even possible, for the first time, if this trend continues, that Corbyn will win the popular vote. Jonathan Cook gives some clear examples of very recent articles in the Guardian on his (excellent) blog (see here). His conclusion is that:

“It is almost as though the Guardian does not want you to know that Corbyn and his policies are proving far more successful in the election campaign than the Guardian predicted or ever wanted. (…) It sounds almost as though the Guardian, which has been denigrating Corbyn since his election as Labour leader (…) does not want him to win. (…) It’s almost as though Britain’s only supposedly left-liberal newspaper would prefer that May and the Conservatives won. This, let us remind ourselves, is the same Conservative party that has made the once-surging, far-right UKIP party largely redundant by adopting many of its ugliest policies” (see here).


“If there is one thing to be gained from this election, it is the spotlight that has been shone on the parlous state of the corporate British media. Even the Guardian cannot hide where its true sympathies, and interests, lie” (see here).

Cook is absolutely right in this. Tabloids can spit their hatred and stupidity every day again and no one does anything against it. Today, things have regressed to such a low that most of the so-called quality newspapers are not worth the paper they are printed on. The Telegraph is just as ideological and biased as the worst tabloids and it serves the same masters. The BBC no longer even tries to keep up the appearance of objectivity, no matter it is obliged by law to do so. On the net, Social Europe has managed to publish not a single article on Corbyn and the upcoming general election so far (or perhaps there is one I missed). It is as if this election does not exist. It is, for the most part, about the populist rebellion, with here and there a song of self-praise about the Nordic model and neoliberal social democracy’s newest darling, Macron. These people, for a change, do nothing for Corbyn, although I am certain there will be a eulogy soon, demanding blood.

So, who will win this election and why?

Five points (assuming the polls are more or less correct) with one week to go is too much. Who votes for who? As McLeod explains, the middle class has formed the backbone of the Tory vote for decades (designated as ABC1 social grades) (see here). Remarkably, as the number of people classified ABC1 has grown, the Conservative share of the vote in that group has fallen. The Tories won ABC1s by 39 points in 1983, 32 points in 1992 and only by 6 points in 2005. Cameron did a bit better. He tried to win back ABC1 voters by embracing green issues. The Tory lead among ABC1s grew to 12 points in both 2010 and 2015 (see here).

Labour too has been losing core voters. At Blair’s first landslide victory in 1997, Labour won the C2, D and E social grades by 31 points. By 2005, this margin had fallen to 15 points, and in 2010 Labour barely won among C2DEs. According to McLeod, the current election looks significantly worse. Averaging across four polls from last week (YouGov, Panelbase, GfK and ICM), the Tories were beating Labour among C2DEs by 12 points. Thatcher’s best result among this group was a tie, in 1983 (see here). And so, class is a much weaker determinant of people’s voting behaviour than it used to be. An analysis of this phenomenon has to wait. Right now the choice is between May and Corbyn. And the issue is that Labour proposes several good policies and that a vote for May is an immoral act.