Labour’s laboured opposition

Theresa May does not make the job of Prime Minister look easy. Her Foreign Secretary condemned her customs union plans as ‘crazy’, the Windrush scandal cost her a key ally in the Cabinet, and the Government had to buy votes from the DUP to avoid an embarrassing defeat in the Commons.

Yet, despite all this, the Labour party emerges subdued from a disappointing set of local election results and finds itself down five points in YouGov’s latest poll. Of course, Labour’s performance in the YouGov poll comes with the usual set of disclaimers – it is better to look at polling averages, it is more useful to look at trends in polls than individual results, polling is proving increasingly inaccurate as predictor of election results, many things can happen between now and 2022 – but, in combination with the disappointing local election results, Labour must be worried.

Corbyn’s Labour has achieved great success among certain demographics, in particular the young and those living in metropolitan areas. The local elections saw Labour continue to make modest inroads, but the truth is that support for Corbyn in these areas is reaching saturation. If Corbyn is to be a genuine electoral threat in 2022, he needs to expand his appeal.

Labour’s poor polling shows that they face two major problems.

The first is Corbyn himself. While he inspires almost unquestioning devotion from his most vocal supporters, large portions of the electorate simply do not trust him. This is reflected in YouGov’s polling on the question of ‘who would make the best Prime Minister’, which sees Jeremy Corbyn adrift of May by 10 points. In the context of the Windrush scandal and the state of Brexit negotiations, this is a terrible indictment of Corbyn’s leadership.

However, the 2017 general election shows that this issue is surmountable; under the bright lights of an election campaign, Theresa May can start to fall apart making Corbyn look more appealing by comparison. Labour should not be complacent and expect a rerun though. The Conservative’s 2017 experience and subsequent jettisoning of Theresa May’s closest advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, will almost certainly see the Party pursuing a different strategy. Recent events have shown that Corbyn has his weaknesses too. His tone-deaf handling of antisemitism accusations and unpopular approach to the Salisbury attacks show that he was lucky to fight the 2017 election relatively scandal-free.

The second problem the Labour party faces was borne out in their local election results: the party’s message does not appeal to rural voters. Labour did continue making gains in most urban centres (with notable exceptions across the West Midlands) but saw the Conservative increase their vote share in many less population-dense areas including crucial Labour targets such as Redditch and Hillingdon. The idiosyncrasies of the First Past the Post Voting system mean that it is no use the Labour party piling up votes in seats they already control; they need to look elsewhere.

Making headway in rural areas must be a priority for the Labour party as they move forward. The Shadow Cabinet have reportedly agreed on this point and Corbyn has set up a community campaign unit which aims to target former Labour voters in post-industrial areas. Making a success of this scheme and winning back these voters will be central to Labour’s chance of success in the next general election. With Labour supporters’ divisions on Brexit largely mirroring the party’s urban/rural divide, this may seem like an impossible task now, but the outcome of the Brexit negotiations in 2020 could change everything.

Four years out from the next general election, local election results and polling is mostly meaningless as a means of actually predicting the outcome. However, Labour’s (relatively) poor performance across both metrics shows that the Party is nowhere near to being the election winning machine it would like to be. In order to stand a chance of winning the next election, the Labour leadership needs to seriously consider why its opposition to a chaotic government is failing to translate into positive polling and make meaningful changes to buck this trend.