Thursday 4 March 2021

The Myth of the Vaccine Bounce

If you haven't seen the latest YouGov poll, it makes for grim reading. 45% for the Tories versus 32% for Labour doesn't look too clever. For information, going back to the Jeremy Corbyn era YouGov didn't post a polling deficit of 13 points or more until mid-October 2016. In other words, for Labour to perform this badly it had to go through a bruising civil war, a failed coup and leadership contest, and another round of civil war. Events we have not witnessed in the 11 months since Keir Starmer ascended to the party's leadership.

Thanks to the NHS's success with the vaccine roll out, pollsters and pundits have talked up the possibility of a Tory bounce for about a fortnight. And consulting recent surveys, the prediction has come to fruition. The Tories are up again and accelerating away from Labour, so this much is true. But when we come to the myth of the vaccine bounce, we're talking about the very political uses to which this trope is being put by Keir Starmer's supporters. Responding to poll reversals, Polly Toynbee counselled patience. Last week, we had clever-clever strategy claims made by Ian Dunt, and before that the usual everything is fine, nothing to see here line. Joining the line-up is former head of research for Labour, Tom Hamilton, with another pro-Keir tract. Among its claims is the vaccine bounce and the crisis is crowding out Labour's messaging, that Keir Starmer is doing a good job in straitened circumstances, and he's having to rebuild the party's reputation after Labour's recent "difficulties".

Going in reverse order, perhaps Tom might be good enough to argue a little more honestly. That Jeremy Corbyn was unpopular among most is not contentious. What is is whether this proved fatal for Labour's chances, or whether the trust issues masses of voters have now in "the brand" lie elsewhere. Helpfully, we can answer that question using polling evidence. The Corbyn-led Labour Party between June 2017 and April 2019 had the main parties taking turns posting modest leads. If he was the unique electoral bromide some suppose he was, then why wasn't Labour lagging? The ratings started tumbling as the EU elections approached - the Tories were eviscerated by the Brexit Party while Labour got a pummelling from them, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the SNP. However, while the Tories were able to recover their numbers Labour had, disastrously, lost a good chunk of its vote to the remain ultra parties and, crucially, hundreds of thousands of Labour leave voters to the Tories. Admittedly, by this point "constructive ambiguity" on Brexit was no longer an option and the party had to choose between a bad defeat or losing vast swathes of its core vote. The result was the preservation of the party's new constituency, but a legacy of distrust outside of it. Particularly among former voters who went Tory because of Brexit. Given that Labour leavers, in the main, accepted Jeremy Corbyn's leadership in 2017 and didn't in 2019 might owe something to the big difference between the two contests: how in the first it accepted the referendum result, and in the second went into the election determined to overturn Brexit. Keir Starmer was instrumental in changing this position, and plenty of Labour leavers know this to be the case. Hence any account for Labour's performance this last year neglecting the entirety of recent history and its consequences just isn't a credible argument.

On Keir is labouring under the burden of media disinterest, or he's doing the best he can, or he's hemmed in by limited options, or because objective circumstances. Some of this is obviously true. The reason why Jeremy Corbyn never got a 20 point lead had more to do with the character of the polarisation that still coheres British politics, itself a workthrough of the polarisation of the country's political economy. It's interesting how Keir's defenders never pay mind to the fact Labour wins among the under 55s, i.e. the working class, and the Tories are the party of the old and propertied. What was true of politics during Jeremy's time is true of now, also. Even if Keir Starmer's Labour were doing well, there is a relatively low ceiling stopping the party from climbing too high, and it will persist as long as the Tories look after their coalition at the expense of everyone else. The only way a 20-point lead is possible is if the Tory coalition is split and broken, and that is beyond Keir's power, even if he had made all the right strategic calls in his first year. It therefore follows reassembling Labour's coalition is the only way it stands a chancem and this requires understanding the political map of Britain. I.e. the sorts of people the party had in its camp on 2019, looking at how it can win back those lost from two years earlier, and seeing what can be done to chip away at the Tories in a war of attrition, a war which does not play to their strengths in the long run. Putting aside any cyncicism I have about Starmerist politics, the obvious difficulty here is Keir and the people he listens to do not have the right analysis.

In the first place, they persist with the idea the voters lost in the so-called Red Wall are Labour's core voters. They are not. Those lost in 2019 tended to be older or retired, and tended to own property - specifically their home. They might have voted Labour all their lives previously, but this drift to the Tories among the people fitting this demographic has become a pronounced trend since around 2005. It's not that the class basis of politics has disappeared. It is, instead, changing and changed - an argument expounded here many times, both after 2017 and after 2019's debacle. What passes for Keir's analysis barely recognises this. The new base is consistently (some might say purposely) mischaracterised as big city-dwelling graduates and young people, and are treated like an optional extra. The path back to power demands rewinning Labour leavers, now codified as patriotic proles with no time for immigrants or equalities issues, while the actual mainstay of the party's coalition are treated as if they have nowhere to go. This is a very serious mistake. In 2019 Labour lost around 300,000 voters to the Tories which, combined with the Brexit Party also drawing in Labour leave voters, helped pave way for the cataclysm. The very people Keir's leadership is now (unsuccessfully) chasing. Yet no one discusses the 1.6m votes Labour bled to the LibDems and the Greens, nor the 600,000 or so who didn't turn out. This serves to remind us that because the new natural base is, well, new its support for Labour is much softer, more conditional, at least for the moment. While some of these have undoubtedly been won back from the LibDems, the Greens are enjoying something of a bump in support. Again, it might be worth reflecting on how attempting to outflank the Tories from the right on corporation tax, or waving flags, or not supporting key parts of the Labour coalition even when backed by public opinion, and a host of other missteps could be and is alienating the people Labour needs to support it to win. True, as Tom says, people might not be paying politics much mind. But it's certainly the case people drawn to Labour because of Corbyn's stand are watching proceedings, and a lot of them are not appreciating what they see.

If this argument is a load of rubbish, then why is it Keir's approach to opposition steadily rebuilt Labour's standing in the polls between his election to around level pegging with the Tories. That is until the turn toward flag waving and adopting George Osborne's position on corporation tax? Again, if one is being honest the timings suggest a relationship exists between party ratings and the chosen strategy, and might start drawing some political conclusions from the evidence dancing in front of their eyes.

And this brings us back to the vaccine bounce. That the Tories are benefiting from a feel good uplift is undeniable. The myth however is that this is responsible for Keir Starmer's difficulties. The polling this year suggests that while the Tory coalition is hardening, Labour's is softening and dispersing - not to the Tories, in the vast majority of cases, but to the Greens, the nationalist parties and in some polls, the LibDems again. The problem is Keir's difficulty holding the existing Labour bloc together, and these are thanks to the politics he's pushing. The party's travails aren't because the Tories are doing well, it's because the Labour leader is doing badly.

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Shai Masot said...

On the 18 Feb Paul Mason dribbled:

"(W)here it matters - from Swindon to Tyneside - Starmer's speech should do what it intends: rebuild Labour's credibility, professionalism and competence. All the "Starmer is Tory-lite" trolls will now find themselves way out of touch with working class people...

Classic. He *still* thinks he's going to get that safe Labour seat nomination he was promised. Ha-ha-ha.

Blissex said...

«The ratings started tumbling as the EU elections approached - the Tories were eviscerated by the Brexit Party while Labour got a pummelling from them, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the SNP.»

Those elections should have been ignored because they were obviously mock elections in which there was no "vote moving issue" at stack for most voters.

«In 2019 Labour lost around 300,000 voters to the Tories which, combined with the Brexit Party also drawing in Labour leave voters, helped pave way for the cataclysm.»

It was not a cataclysm in terms of votes, but of marginal seats. If we look at number of votes as indicator of popularity, it was quite clear that Corbyn's Labour was still quite popular.

«Yet no one discusses the 1.6m votes Labour bled to the LibDems and the Greens, nor the 600,000 or so who didn't turn out.

There was no 1.6m vote bled to LibDems and Greens from Labour alone, it was also from the Conservatives and UKIP:

2010: Lab 08.61m, Con 10.70m, Lib 6.84m
2015: Lab 09.35m, Con 11.30m, Lib 2.41m, UKIP 3.88m
2017: Lab 12.63m, Con 13.30m, Lib 2.22m, UKIP 0.59m
2019: Lab 10.30m, Con 13.97m, Lib 3.70m, BXP 0.64m

Compare in particular 2015 with 2015 and 2017, there in 2015 one could observe the Labour and Conservative vote minus the Brexit issue (and minus Corbyn). Looking at individual seats it is even clearer.

Going from 2015 to 2017 UKIP lost 3.3m votes, at least 2m of which went straight back to the Conservatives and at least 1m went back to Labour; Labour also got an uplift of 2m votes from the Corbyn factor. From 2017 to 2019 the Corbyn factor shrunk a bit, but there was an obvious shift from Labour to Conservatives and from Conservatives to LibDems, as well as some shift from Labour to LibDems.

There are very interesting graphs here about vote shifts in "Leave" vs. "Remain" seats and in various regions:

The biggest Labour losses percentwise happens in "North East" (-12.8%) and "Yorks & Humber" (-10.1%) and the biggest LibDem gain were in "South East" (+7.7%) and "London" (+6.1%)

Consider the two most extreme:
* "North East": Con +3,9%, Lab -12.8%, Lib +2.3%
* "South East"; Con -0.6%, Lab -6.5%, Lib +7.7%