By Oliver Wilson
With just over two weeks to go to the General Election the facts show clearly that the most important tactical task for Labour remains what it has been throughout the election and as was predictable in advance – to win over those who deserted Labour to vote for the Lib Dems in the Euro elections. To achieve this crucially includes achieving the greatest possible voter turnout on 12 December.
This is sharply revealed by the story the political dynamics and polls are showing in the general election campaign – which is crystal clear. Despite Farage doing everything he possibly can to boost the Conservative vote the Tories had made no significant advance from the 42.4% of the vote they achieved in 2017. Their percentage is 41% in the latest poll tracker (23 November). Indeed, they may well be below this if there is a high turnout on 12 December – due to biases in opinion polling which assume that younger voters will have a much lower turn out compared to older ones. This bias is why, for example, YouGov under predicted the Labour vote by 5% in 2017. The decisive issue that must be analysed and dealt with is that Labour is polling below the 40.0% it achieved in 2017 – it is at 29% on the latest poll of polls.
The reason for this lower Labour support so far is clear. In 2017 the Lib Dems received only 7.4% of the vote. Today, on the latest poll of polls they are at 15% – see Figure 1. That is, around 8% of voters since 2017 have shifted from Labour to the Lib Dems. If this 8% were added to Labour’s standing in the polls its support would already be at 37% with more than two weeks of the campaign to go. The difference with the Tories would then be almost within the polls’ margin of error. Then with the polls likely underestimation of Labour’s share of the vote, for reasons already given, without this Labour loss of votes to the Lib Dems, Labour and the Tories would today be neck and neck with Labour having two weeks to win the election.
In summary Labour has just over two weeks to achieve the decisive task of winning over Lib Dem voters to take Lib Dem support down to the around 7% level it polled in 2017. Whether this can be achieved by Labour will be the decisive factor determining the outcome of the election. For the sake of defending living standards and fighting austerity, for fighting climate catastrophe, and blocking a Johnson/Trump Brexit every sinew has to be strained to achieve this.
The reason for this higher Lib Dem support than in 2017 is clear. The only policy of the Lib Dems which the electorate knows about is opposition to Brexit. The crucial 8% of voters have so far switched from Labour to Lib Dems because, falsely, the Lib Dems are seen as more opposed to Brexit than Labour – falsely because the only real chance to block Brexit is a referendum and the only way to achieve that is to secure a Labour government.
The polls show with absolute clarity what occurred. As long as Brexit was a future, and therefore theoretical issue, the Lib Dems remained marginal – in March 2019, just before the first deadline for Brexit, the Lib Dem share of the vote was 10%, only very slightly above their 2017 result, and Labour was on 31%, essentially neck and neck with the Tories (see Figure 2). But as Brexit moved from a theoretical to a practical issue with the approaching deadline for EU withdrawal, with the Lib Dem emphasis on opposing Brexit, and with Labour at that time not committed to its present policy of a referendum with Remain as an option, these factors led to a surge in Lib Dem support. The Lib Dems achieved a 19.6% share of the vote in the Euro elections, compared to Labour’s 13.6%, and with this momentum they reached a peak of 24% in polls of voting intentions in a general election, again ahead of Labour, in May 2019.
The Euro election was always going to be significantly different to a general election, as it was seen as a type of specific vote on Brexit, and Labour would win back Lib Dem voters at a general election, but nevertheless the fact that Labour adopted the policy of a referendum with Remain as an option only after the Euro election, gave the opening for the Lib Dems. Johnson and the Tories entire electoral strategy is based on the hope that the Lib Dems can retain enough of that support to knock down Labour’s vote. Equally, the single most decisive issue for Labour is whether it can recapture those who voted Lib Dem and not Labour at the Euro elections in May 2019.
The possibility for Labour to win this crucial 8% of voters is clear. The real policy of the Lib Dem leaders is totally against the clear wishes of most Lib Dem supporters. The Lib Dem leaders claim verbally that their priority is to stop Brexit. But if that were true they should be concentrating all their fire on the Tories and acknowledging Labour is committed to a referendum. But instead every major move Lib Dem move has been to attack Labour – starting with virtually their first statements in the general election being to announce candidates to run against Labour in Labour held marginals such as Canterbury and Kensington & Chelsea, and the entire weight of Jo Swinson’s media campaign being against Labour.
But polls show clearly that the great majority of Lib Dem supporters disagree with the approach of the Lib Dem leaders. Opinion polls show that Lib Dem voters, by almost two to one, were in favour of Corbyn as an interim prime minister to stop Johnson’s Brexit – a policy blocked by Swinson et al. By the same margin Lib Dem supporters favoured Labour over the Tories as a choice if they could not vote Lib Dem. Cracking this link between the pro-Tory fakery of the Lib Dem leaders and the progressive positions of the majority of Lib Dem voters is therefore the decisive task for Labour to win the election. Naturally, Labour welcomes support coming from all its opponents, and from previously uncommitted voters. But the numerical bulk of potential converts to Labour comes from the Lib Dems (and only to a lesser extent Plaid, the Greens and the SNP).
Labour has succeeded during the General Election campaign in winning back a part of Lib Dem voters at the Euro elections. It has the policies to do so on the three most decisive issues for Lib Dem supporters – Brexit, fighting climate catastrophe, and improving living standards/opposing austerity. On Brexit Labour’s policy is clear – it will entirely block a disastrous No Deal/Hard Brexit deal which would subordinate Britain to the US, it will negotiate a deal which maintains Britain within a customs union with the EU in order to protect jobs and living standards, and it will guarantee there will be a referendum to decide between that and Remain. By guaranteeing there will be a referendum with Remain as an option, and the fact that only a Labour government can deliver this, Labour has the crucial policy to win over many of those who currently support the Lib Dems. But it is crucial to understand that winning over Lib Dem voters is the essential issue that will numerically decide the outcome of the general election and to focus on this in the slightly over two weeks that are remaining in the election.
Brexit is not, and never has been, the single most important issue in this election. That decisive issue is the defence of the population’s living standards in all aspects – the NHS, working to prevent climate catastrophe, entitlement of women to the rightful pension they have paid for in their national insurance contributions, abolition of tuition fees, investment in a green industrial revolution and numerous other related issues. Labour has produced a magnificent Manifesto which would transform the country for the better and improve the immediate living standards of the great majority of the population while ensuring Britain plays a leading role in the international fight against the climate catastrophe. Labour’s policies on these issues are why its support has risen in the election campaign. It is why Labour has decisively moved into a huge lead over the Lib Dems in the general election campaign – entirely reversing the situation in the Euro elections. This Manifesto would deliver huge improvements in living standards for the population of this country and begin to put Britain at the forefront of the international struggle against climate catastrophe.
But Brexit and the voters who switched to the Lib Dems in the Euro elections over the issue are the ‘tipping point’ issue in the general election – the one that will decide its outcome between victory and defeat. The Johnson project of Brexit is a massive attack on the population aimed at the progressive ‘Americanisation’ of British society and a movement of Britain towards the US/Trump disastrous position on climate catastrophe. It is for that reason that millions of people are rightly totally opposed to Brexit as supported by Johnson. It was for that reason that when they saw the Lib Dems promising a referendum with Remain as an option they switched to the Lib Dems at the Euro election as Labour only later adopted its present policy.
Regarding the present election as John Curtice, a bourgeois expert but a serious analyst of electoral trends, noted: ‘The Conservatives’ seemingly comfortable poll lead would soon be reduced if the Remain vote were to coalesce behind Labour, rather than be split between Mr Corbyn’s party and the Liberal Democrats (who still have just under 30 per cent of the Remain vote). Labour have already had some success in that direction; there has been as much as a seven-point swing from the Liberal Democrats to Labour since the election was called.’
This is also directly related to the issue of turnout. All polls show that young voters, who in the past, with the exception of 2017, have turned out in far lesser numbers than older voters, are overwhelmingly pro-Remain and overwhelmingly pro-Labour. Achieving a massive turnout of young voters is therefore crucial for Labour both in general and to achieve a high Labour vote and cut back the Lib Dems. The most encouraging trend on this front in the election has been huge voter registration – at a higher level even than in 2017. This undoubtedly reflects greater registration of younger voters – older voters have a much higher level of registration already. If this is turned into actual votes among the more pro-Remain/pro-Labour younger voters it can play a crucial role in the election.
But the overall situation in the election is clear from the facts. As the Sunday Times on 3 November spelt out in precise words what any serious strategist of the general election already knew: ‘The prospect of the campaign becoming a two-horse race with Labour will unnerve Conservative strategists, whose hopes of a majority are based on the Lib Dems splitting the remain vote.’ The outcome of the election, and the vital winning of a Corbyn government, will be decided by whether in the final two and a half weeks of the campaign Labour can win over those who deserted it for the Lib Dems in the Euro elections.