Labour: the new Nasty Party?

Both main parties enter conference season dogged by problems that are largely of their own making. We will look at the Conservatives later in the week, but many will be puzzled by the self-inflicted wound of Labour’s stubborn refusal to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which it finally did earlier this month after much kicking and screaming and with still more caveat.

ComRes polled voters on behalf of Jewish News on the eve of the Labour Conference. We found that many voters are unconvinced of Jeremy Corbyn’s protestations that he is doing all he can to tackle anti-Semitism in the Party. Almost half, 45%, believe he is either unwilling or unable to, while one in four (27%), including 55% of Labour voters, accept the line from his supporters that he has been the target of a smear campaign by his opponents.

Whoever is correct, the issue has doubtless harmed the Party’s brand nationally, even if it does not seem to be doing too much damage to their overall vote share numbers – half of all GB adults say it is not doing enough to tackle anti-Semitism (as do even 31% of Labour voters). Since the last time ComRes asked the question, in March 2017, just one percent (ie within the margin of error) more now think the Party is doing enough.

MPs such as Joan Ryan, who Chairs Labour Friends of Israel, and Gavin Shuker, have recently faced (and lost) votes of no confidence among local party members. Whilst these votes have no formal basis, and Mr Corbyn himself knows only too well that confidence votes can be lost without apparent cost, they are seen as a nod to the tough selection battles moderate MPs will face when it comes to choosing who will represent Labour at the next election.

For Labour MPs sandwiched politically between a hard left leadership and a pro-Corbyn mass membership, the temptation to join the likes of Frank Field and John Woodcock by jumping ship must be strong. If they were not tempted to leave before, then aggressive attempts to unseat them will surely tip more moderates over the edge.

What might we expect in terms of electoral consequences of all this? First, the public do not like parties that are disunited. At best, this is probably zero-sum given how overtly and bitterly split the Conservatives are over Brexit (divisions which are course equally prevalent in Labour but better controlled).

Second, the public do not like parties that are seen as ‘nasty’. Theresa May having famously labelled her own party as that at the 2002 Tory Conference, the Conservatives spent much of the past 16 years trying to shake it off. The ComRes/Jewish News poll finds almost as many (31%) now think Labour is the Nasty Party as say the same of the Tories (34%).

Equally concerning for Labour should be that they are losing their reputation for decency; twice as many people in the poll said the Party was more decent under Gordon Brown as say it is under Jeremy Corbyn (48% to 24%).

The key question is why, despite being split, seen as anti-Semitic and lacking decency, the Party still polls in the high 30s. Well, in addition to the Conservative Government’s execrable performance, Brexit must feature prominently in reasons why Labour isn’t doing worse. That is why Tuesday’s Conference vote to determine the Party’s position on the issue is so important. In a ComRes poll of 10,000 voters in Leave-voting areas for Brexit Express in July 2018, despite the Westminster Bubble assumption that Jeremy Corbyn’s personal views are Eurosceptic, only one in four voters thought Labour’s official policy was to leave the EU.

Make no mistake: Brexit will continue to be a thorn in the side of the Conservatives long after the UK has left the EU at 11pm on 29th March 2019. For months, if not years, every negative news item for which the blame can be put on Brexit, will be, and that means it will be put on the Party that led us through the negotiations, even if it has changed leader.

The big unknowns therefore are firstly whether and how quickly, once Brexit has been concluded, political life returns to normal. Secondly, almost half the public would in principle consider supporting a new centre ground party, which is likely to draw more votes from the ranks of moderate Labour voters than from the Conservatives. Though uncertain, it is possible that such a party could split the Left vote in 2022.

There are too many uncertainties to point with confidence to any scenario right now. What is clear, though, is that Labour has hit an electoral nerve a decade after the 2008 crash which blames capitalism for many of the nation’s woes. Whatever the outcome on Brexit, every major party that is serious about governing will need to make sure that voters feel they are reaping the benefits of our free market system.