Jeremy Corbyn’s terrible warning to Keir Starmer

One of my vivid memories of working in TV was the moment when John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, responded to a question from Jonathan Dimbleby in a BBC On The Record interview by asking one of his own: “Has it ever occurred to you that the lust for certainty is a sin?”

It is a sin that besets political commentary, and I was reminded of the late archbishop’s words when I read an article by Peter Kellner, the former president of YouGov, suggesting that the local elections in a month’s time would shed some light on the argument about whether Labour’s lead in the opinion polls is soft.

Yes and no. All they will do is provide more information about which to be uncertain.

I confess to being a sinner myself. In my end-of-year forecast in December, I predicted that Rishi Sunak would still be prime minister after the next general election. In my defence, however, I would say that this was not a confident prediction; it was more of a corrective to the prevailing assumption, which is that Keir Starmer is heading for a landslide victory.

As Lord Habgood suggested, uncertainty is hard to handle, but I think the range of likely outcomes is skewed away from Labour winning a majority. The most unlikely support for this proposition comes in the form of Jeremy Corbyn: his unexpected success in the 2017 election should stand as a terrible warning to his successor.

Corbyn has been cast into the outer darkness as a sacrificial offering for Starmer’s past sins of a different kind – and the latest indications are that, as always seemed likely, Corbyn will decide against standing as an independent in Islington North. But Starmer would be wise to heed the lessons of his predecessor’s history.

First, Labour had a disastrous showing in the local elections in May 2017, which was just a month before the general election. Far from pointing towards Labour’s startling recovery in support during the general election campaign, the local elections pointed in the opposite direction, suggesting that the Conservatives were 11 points ahead of Labour in national equivalent vote share. Kellner’s idea that next month’s local elections will clarify anything may be unfounded.

It wasn’t just the local elections that pointed the wrong way in 2017. There had been a by-election in Copeland in Cumbria in February, which Trudy Harrison won for the Conservatives – a rare by-election gain by the government party from the opposition. These “real votes in real ballot boxes” seemed to confirm the national opinion poll picture: the Tories had been 10-15 points ahead ever since Theresa May became prime minister after the EU referendum. When she called the election, she was 20 points ahead.

Then… politics happened. Corbyn published a manifesto that promised lots of public spending (without going over the top as he did two years later), while May promised to take away your house if you got dementia. Corbyn came across as a kind uncle, surprising disengaged voters who had been told by people like me that he was dangerous, while May obviously disliked asking for votes, telling a nurse on TV there was no magic money tree. The result was that May lost her majority and Corbyn came within a handful of seats of a minority Labour government.

That is not to say that the opposite shift, in Sunak’s favour, is likely. But it is a vivid reminder that opinion polls, local election results and by-elections can mean little when voters start to focus on the choice at a general election.

A by-election is imminent in the Rutherglen constituency of Margaret Ferrier, the former SNP MP who broke coronavirus law. If Labour does well there, which is likely, this too will probably be over-interpreted as pointing to a landslide for Starmer in a general election.

Corbyn’s 2017 campaign is a reminder of how quickly politics can turn, but Starmer should also avoid over-interpreting current indicators because the next general election is so far away. James Kanagasooriam, the data analyst who identified the potential for Tory gains in the “red wall” in 2019, recently looked at evidence other than voting intention polls. He found that they pointed towards a hung parliament, in which Starmer would probably be prime minister.

The indicators he looked at were leader ratings, voter expectations (that is, who people think will win) and local election results.

Again, these are also subject to change on the Corbyn principle of “politics happening” as the general election approaches. Politics will undoubtedly happen in the 18 months to October next year, and only some of it is predictable, such as inflation falling and real wage growth resuming.

Starmer keeps telling his shadow cabinet that they must fight the next year and half as if they are five points behind, whatever the opinion polls say. That – and “prepare for a hung parliament” – are the right lessons to draw from Corbyn’s warning from history.


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