It was a Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, who called and lost the referendum on Europe. Yet it seems to have been the Labour party that has suffered the collateral damage. While the Conservatives – whose parliamentary ranks split almost evenly down the middle on the question of whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU – managed to find themselves someone to succeed David Cameron with relative ease and surprising speed, Labour has become embroiled in its second bitter leadership battle in just 12 months. Indeed, so striking was the contrast in the apparent post-referendum fortunes of the two parties that hardly had Theresa May moved in to 10 Downing Street before it was suggested that she should call an early general election to take advantage of her opponents’ disarray.
That speculation always seemed misguided. It flew in the face of the near impossibility of engineering an autumn general election now that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is in place, and ignored the fact that when seeking the support of her parliamentary colleagues in the leadership contest, Mrs May promised them that she would not put their careers on the line. Still, the prospect of an early election caused enough of a panic in Labour’s parliamentary ranks to instigate an attempt to remove a leader who most Labour MPs regard as an electoral liability. Then, when Jeremy Corbyn proved remarkably resistant to his colleagues’ call to stand down, a challenge and leadership contest was all but inevitable.
In fact, the strength of the Conservatives’ position in the polls since the referendum should not be exaggerated. The methods being deployed by polling companies are still in some flux following the difficulties posed by the polls’ underestimation of Conservative support in last year’s general election, and during the referendum campaign polls of voting intention appeared more episodically than is usually the case. Still, since Easter three polling companies have, on a regular basis, published polls of voting intention conducted using much the same methodology. Their results are summarised in table 1.
Average levels of party support in polls conducted in spring and summer 2016
Figures based on polls conducted by ICM, Ipsofs MORI and Opinium, each of which conducted at least one poll within each of the below time periods.
*Note: Pre-local elections, 27 March–3 May; post-local elections, 4 May–26 May; referendum, 27 May–23 June; interregnum, 24 June–12 July; May ‘honeymoon’, 13 July–17 August.
That Theresa’s May’s accession to the Conservative leadership engendered a boost in her party’s support is quite clear. In the month or so after she became prime minister, Conservative support increased to 40 per cent, up five points on the 35 per cent to which the party slipped during the divisive referendum campaign. However, the boost represents a more modest three- point increase on its standing when the party battle was last dominating British politics – that is, during the weeks immediately before the local and devolved elections on 5 May 2016. Moreover, this boost is by no means especially remarkable for a mid-term prime ministerial honeymoon. Support for Labour also increased by five points immediately after Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007, while the demise of Margaret Thatcher and her eventual replacement by John Major in 1990 boosted Conservative support by no less than 11 points.
We should remember, too, that both Mr Major and Mr Brown discovered that prime ministerial honeymoons do not necessarily last very long, as the latter in particular learned to his cost when he dithered over whether or not to call an early election. Meanwhile, even while it lasts, Mrs May’s honeymoon has done no more than put her party two points further ahead of Labour than it was at the 2015 general election. If that increase were to be replicated in ballot boxes across the country as a whole, it would give the Conservatives just 11 extra seats. In short, for Mrs May the potential rewards from going to the country have looked rather small as compared with the risks entailed in putting her honeymoon boost to the electoral test.
Meanwhile, somewhere between 10 Downing Street and Armageddon…
Meanwhile, although Labour support has eased by a couple of points since the round of local and devolved elections in May, the party’s support has proven surprisingly resilient in the face of not only a change of prime minister but also the fact that since the referendum the vast majority of Labour MPs have signalled a lack of confidence in their leader. While Mr Corbyn’s critics are right to claim that the party has never shown sign of making much electoral progress under his leadership – during the course of the last year support for the party has hardly ever averaged more than 33 per cent – equally, there has never been, and even now there still is not, much sign that the party is heading for Armageddon.
Perhaps one reason for this resilience is to be found in the data on satisfaction with leaders collected every month by Ipsos MORI. That there is widespread dissatisfaction with Mr Corbyn among voters is clear: during the course of the last year, on average no less than 48 per cent have said that they were dissatisfied with the Labour leader’s performance. That’s even higher than the equivalent figure (46 per cent) during the first 12 months in charge of the man who still holds the record for being the most unpopular Labour leader ever – Michael Foot. However, at the same time, the 32 per cent who have said they are satisfied with Mr Corbyn is not only higher than the proportion who were satisfied with Mr Foot (25 per cent) during his first year as opposition leader, but is also higher than the proportion who were satisfied with Mr Cameron during this stage in his political career (30 per cent).
In short, Mr Corbyn is more accurately described as a divisive opposition leader than as an unpopular one. More voters have had an opinion of him, either for good or ill, during his first year as opposition leader than have had a view about any of his predecessors during their initial 12 months in the post, Tony Blair included. But the fact that there has been a relatively large body of voters who are satisfied with his performance perhaps goes some way to explaining why Labour support has largely been holding steady, as well as why, at the same time, the party has been able to sign up more than half a million members and supporters via two leadership elections. There is evidently a section of the British public, to be found particularly among younger voters, for whom the Labour leader does have an appeal; it just does not look like a section that is big enough, on its own at least, to enable Labour to win a general election.
That will certainly be the case so long as the party’s leader is unable to command the confidence of his parliamentary colleagues. The current division between the leader and the bulk of the parliamentary party on the one hand, and that between most MPs and much of the party’s membership on the other, has turned Labour into a dysfunctional gaggle. The lynchpins of any political party – discipline and loyalty – are almost entirely absent. Little wonder that relatively few voters think that Labour is best placed to handle any of the problems confronting the country – a perception that is bound to undermine any party’s attempt to win votes, irrespective of the ideological position it adopts.
Rip it up and start again
Yet, despite Mrs May’s smooth transition into 10 Downing Street, the Conservatives’ potential problems are arguably just as acute as Labour’s. The party has just shown itself to be even more out of tune with its supporters on Europe than Labour – as we noted in the last edition of Juncture, a majority of those who voted Conservative in 2015 voted to leave the EU, whereas Labour at least managed to persuade two-thirds of its supporters to back Remain. Meanwhile, Mrs May now leads a government that is committed to implementing a policy to which the vast majority of those sitting around the cabinet table were hitherto supposedly opposed: just six of the 22 ministers in the new cabinet backed Brexit.
And while many a Eurosceptically inclined but Remain-supporting Tory MP may appear willing to accommodate themselves to the prospect of leaving the EU, there is still a serious risk that the division within the parliamentary party over whether to remain or leave will now replicate itself in different interpretations of what Brexit should mean.
At the same time, the government has indicated that it proposes to rip up George Osborne’s plan to restore the health of the public finances – a plan that has, until now, been a cornerstone of its appeal to the electorate. In the next few months it will also be trying to minimise concern about the economic risks of leaving the EU that, just a few weeks ago, we were being assured would inevitably flow from a vote for Brexit. All in all, this litany of changes arguably represents the biggest U-turn in British politics since the policy reversals of Edward Heath’s beleaguered 1970–74 government. Against this backdrop, persuading voters that her government has a clear purpose and sense of direction – and thus is still worthy of their support – will not be an easy task for the new prime minister.
So the EU referendum has not only resulted in open warfare in Labour’s ranks, but has also forced the Conservative party to press the reset button without being sure what the new settings will or should be. Historical precedent suggests that such circumstances, when both Conservative and Labour are in political difficulty, are tailor-made for a Liberal Democrat revival. However, as table 1 shows, there is little sign as yet that the party is staging any kind of recovery from the calamitous collapse in support it suffered in 2015. Tim Farron and his much-diminished band of seven parliamentary colleagues have so far not been able to make much impact at all.
But that does not mean that, despite their respective difficulties, there is not a potential threat to the hegemonic position of Britain’s two largest parties. At the 2015 election, no less than 23 per cent of the vote was won by parties other than the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – most notably by Ukip, the SNP and the Greens. This figure was unprecedented: hitherto it had never been more than 10 per cent, and as recently as 1992 was as little as 4 per cent. A year on, this remarkable rise in support for ‘insurgent’ parties remains undiminished. As table 1 shows, both Ukip and the Greens continue to enjoy much the same level of support as they did in 2015. Meanwhile, north of the border, where the Conservative-Labour hegemony has already been consigned to the history books, the SNP still dominates the electoral scene. In short, although the Liberal Democrats may still look unattractive to many, there are plenty of seemingly viable alternatives available to voters should they become disenchanted with what both the traditional parties of British government have to offer.
Of course, these ‘insurgent’ parties face their own challenges in the wake of the EU referendum. Ironically, having achieved its raison d’être in the referendum, Ukip now faces as big a challenge as any party does – it needs to reinvent itself, and to do so without the benefit of its charismatic former leader, Nigel Farage. Most likely the party will endeavour to represent the social conservatism that lies behind the concerns about immigration that proved so important during the referendum. In the meantime, as table 1 shows, the party’s support seems to have eased a little since the referendum – primarily, it seems, as a result of losses to the Conservatives. In the period since Mrs May became prime minister the proportion of those who backed Ukip in 2015 who have now switched to the Conservatives has been standing at, on average, nearly one in five – roughly double the figure in April and well above the proportions switching to Labour (6 per cent) or the Liberal Democrats (1 per cent). Indeed, this increase in switching from Ukip to the Conservatives accounts for a significant proportion of Mrs May’s honeymoon boost. However, if some Ukip supporters have recently switched to the Conservative fold because Mrs May’s party is now committed to delivering Brexit, there is clearly a risk that they will switch back again if Mrs May fails to deliver the kind of Brexit for which they are hoping.
The SNP, by contrast, has no need to reinvent itself. Rather, Nicola Sturgeon has to decide how to deal with a very different but no less profound aspect of the fallout from the EU referendum. That is, given that a majority of voters north of the border voted to Remain, are enough of those who voted No in the independence referendum in September 2014 sufficiently unhappy about the unwanted prospect of having to leave the EU that they would now switch to voting Yes in a second independence referendum? Polls conducted since the EU referendum have so far failed to give a clear indication one way or the other – three have suggested that there might now, for the first time, be a small majority in favour of independence, but a fourth indicated that staying in the UK was still marginally the more popular option. However, for the moment at least, the possibility that the UK could be faced once more with the possibility that Scotland will sue for divorce certainly cannot be discounted. And while such an eventuality would be a body-blow for a Labour party that has seemingly little prospect of winning an election unless it can recover some of the ground it has lost so heavily to the SNP in Scotland, it would also not be good news for a prime minister who has already nailed her colours to the mast of maintaining the Union.
These are highly uncertain times indeed, not just for Labour but for both of Britain’s traditional parties of government.
John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a columnist for Juncture.
This article appears in edition 23.2 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.
1 Curtice J (2016) ‘Not the end, my friend: Labour, the referendum result, and the challenges that remain’, Juncture 23(1): 18–21, and online at http://www.ippr.org/juncture/not-the-end-my-friend-labour-the- referendum-and-the-challenges-that-remain [^back]
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