It must be tough being a political pollster. Get it right and you’re simply doing your job. Get it wrong and you risk being pilloried as a practitioner of quasi-scientific voodoo as the practice of polling is debunked.
Without doubt it’s been a tough 18 months for pollsters. Few if any predicted a Conservative majority at last year’s General Election. Certainly, the exit polls didn’t bear much in the way of similarity to the breakdown of the Commons today. And, like many, I went to bed on 23 June with the polls expecting a Remain vote and Nigel Farage allegedly putting the final polish on a concession speech – only to wake and find we were leaving the EU. Doubtless pollsters the world over will be on tenterhooks come the US election on 8 November.
But even though you can point to the EU referendum and General Election polling, it would be folly to ignore the latest opinion polls and their significance. A new Ipsos Mori poll has given the Tories (47 percent) an 18-point lead over Labour (29 percent). The Lib Dems have seven percent and UKIP, which increasingly seems to be moving towards its own extinction, has six percent.
To put that into context, it’s the biggest lead the Conservatives have had over Labour since 2009 when Gordon Brown was grappling with the aftermath of the credit crunch. And it’s the biggest lead the Tories have had while in office since 1987 when Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp.
Suggestions the figures could prompt a rethink by the Prime Minister on an early General Election were swiftly dismissed by senior government sources. Quite rightly. The public has been to the polls twice in 12 months, and may have little appetite for another visit to the ballot box. Meanwhile, there are more pressing concerns for Mrs May’s government. Like the falling value of the pound. Or funding the health service. Or Brexit.
What these polling figures do show is that Labour is continuing to struggle to make inroads with the public and showing itself to be a government in waiting. The rank and file of the Party is clearly engaged – just ask those who voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership contest. But, and particularly after a succession of shadow cabinet reshuffles, Labour is yet to impose itself.
And this makes yesterday’s election of Select Committee chairs significant – particularly those of Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn. The willingness of these and other heavyweight Labour MPs to stand for chairmanships demonstrates their view that this is a way to both challenge the Conservatives and demonstrate that the Parliamentary Labour Party is capable of leading – albeit perhaps without providing an endorsement to the Labour leader.
In the short-term, the ability of these senior MPs to impose themselves on government policy is important, particularly as the new shadow cabinet seeks to impose itself. In the long-term it could be critical. The Boundary Commission’s recommendations could make the next election more than uncomfortable for Labour and cement a Conservative majority. Select Committees are designed to provide overview and scrutiny, but in the context of these electoral changes they might also provide the future of effective opposition.