Any hope for Ed Miliband? London elections hold the key

Ukip is stealing support and Ed is not impressing voters: will local elections tell a different story?

Column LAST UPDATED AT 12:10 ON Tue 13 May 2014

HOW could Labour's lead suddenly collapse in the two opinion polls dominating Westminster chitchat this morning? Especially when only two days ago YouGov was showing Labour seven points ahead of the Tories and seemingly on the up? 

To deal with the YouGov poll first, it is now clear that that survey was an anomaly – an "outlier" in pollster-speak. Previous YouGov polls had had Labour ahead by between one and four points, and indeed a new YouGov survey today, for The Sun, has Labour back down to a lead of only one per cent over the Tories. So let's forget that seven-point lead. 

But why would Labour have fallen so sharply at a time when its flagship policies – from part-renationalisation of the railways to curbs on private landlords - are actually proving popular, even among Tory supporters?

The first thing to point out is that the ICM poll for The Guardian, which gives Labour its smallest share of the vote for four years after dropping six points to 31 per cent, only gives the Tories a one-point rise (up to 33 per cent). Labour voters are not suddenly seeing the light and falling in love with David Cameron.

The other fresh poll, commissioned by the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft, also gives the Tories a two-point lead over Labour (34 per cent to 32). Because this is the first in what the former Tory party chairman promises will be a weekly telephone poll,  there are no earlier figures to compare the results with.

But both polls suggest Labour is losing support to Ukip – just as Nigel Farage, to general Labour cynicism, has been predicting. Ukip is up by four points to 15 per cent in the ICM poll and Ashcroft's poll also has Farage's party on 15 per cent.

Ukip could hardly have had more publicity in the build-up to the 22 May European elections – and when it's bad PR, it seems to roll off them like water off a duck's back. They're clearly reaping the benefit.

The specific ICM question on how people will vote in the European elections shows a staggering 12 per cent drop in Labour support (to 24 per cent) with Ukip jumping six per cent to 26 per cent and the Greens up four on ten per cent. (The Lib Dems are way behind on seven.)

The Tories beat them all with 27 per cent – another fillip for Cameron, who has been facing the dreaded possibility of coming third behind Ukip and Labour when the Euro votes are counted on 25 May (the delay is because some European countries, like France, don't vote until the Sunday).

Mike Smithson of PoliticalBetting.com reminds us that Labour never do well in European elections. “Success in the closed list PR system used since 1999 for the European elections always eluded Tony Blair in spite of his extraordinary record in general elections," says Smithson. 

"If Blair was unable to do it in the most clement of conditions for his party then is it any wonder that Ed Miliband’s Labour is going to struggle? For Labour has always had a challenge getting its supporters out to vote when the government of the country is not at stake.”

That may well give Ed Miliband an alibi for under-performing in the European elections but, as The Guardian reports, Labour's slump “goes hand in hand” with the increasingly low personal rating for Miliband - down to a net minus-25, his worst figure yet from ICM.

It’s worth underlining the phrase “goes hand in hand”. This implies doubt over whether there is cause and effect, whether Miliband himself is the reason for the Labour slump.

As The Guardian reports, Miliband has never enjoyed good personal ratings. “This is the worst score for him that ICM has recorded on this occasional question, although it is only marginally worse than the net minus-22 he notched up when it was last asked, a year ago.”

One explanation may be that voters are seeing more of Miliband than they usually do - in campaign mode across the country and starring in a new party election broadcast on the NHS – and this has reawakened doubts about him.

The contrast with David Cameron is sharp: he gets a net rating of plus-two, way up from minus-15 a year ago.

Again caution is justified in using this as an explanation for the Tories going ahead in the polls. Although the Conservative score is one point up on April in the ICM poll, it is still actually two per cent lower than it was in January and March. 

And there is a cautious tone to Lord Ashcroft’s commentary on his own polling. “One thing I should point out is that the Tory lead is somewhat more slender than it looks: if one fewer interviewee had named the Conservatives, the party’s score would have been rounded down to 33 per cent rather than up to 34 per cent, and the lead would be down to one point."

Nor is that slender Tory lead necessarily caused by voters feeling encouraged by the Tories' handling of the economy. Says Ashcroft: “Two-thirds of voters think either that the economy is not yet recovering from the recession or, more likely, that it is recovering but they have yet to feel any benefit. Only 12 per cent say 'the economy is recovering from the recession and I am feeling better off as a result." 

Ashcroft also makes the point that with a year to go before the general election, "nothing is settled". Fewer than half of those naming a preferred party said they would definitely vote that way come May 2015. 

A breakdown shows 47 per cent of Labour voters and the same percentage of Ukip supporters saying they might reconsider before election day. Among Tories, the proportion who might change their minds was even higher – on 52 per cent – and among Lib Dem supporters higher still, on 61 per cent. "There is still plenty of potential for movement," says Ashcroft.

There is no doubt these new polls will have shocked Team Miliband – and Labour will be praying that the actual elections on 22 May provide a more encouraging prognosis.

Forget the European election for the moment and think about the local elections being held the same day – in particular, the election of 1,500 councillors for the 32 London boroughs and what the results might tell us about the marginal Westminster seats which, in what will clearly be a tight race, will hold the key to the 2015 general election result.

The London boroughs were last contested on the same day as the general election in 2010 when Labour and the Conservatives were level pegging in the capital.

But a Survation poll on voting intentions shows Labour have moved sharply ahead in the capital.

The poll, carried out at the end of last week, puts Labour on 42 per cent compared with 32 per cent in 2010, while the Conservatives have fallen back from 32 to 26 per cent. The Lib Dems have dropped from 22 to 14 and Ukip are on 11. 

Apart from a handful of Lib Dem councils, the battle in London is mainly between Tory and Labour. Party strategists will be watching four battleground boroughs: Barnet, Croydon, Harrow, and Redbridge which have a number of key parliamentary marginals within their borders.

Labour need three gains on 22 May for an overall majority in Croydon. Victory would set them up to take the Westminster seat of Croydon Central with a three per cent swing in 2015.

In Redbridge where Labour also need a three-seat gain, the parliamentary target is Ilford North where they need a six per cent swing. Harrow East would fall on a four per cent swing so Labour are looking to reinforce their narrow hold on the council. Control of Barnet is a long shot but the seat of Hendon would fall on a three per cent swing.

Labour's optimism will be tested by the ICM and Ashcroft polls. But if they hit most or all of their targets in London next week they will argue that real people voting in real elections are a better guide than opinion polls to what will happen at the 2015 general election.

Finally, back to Lord Ashcroft.  On Saturday 24 May, he's due to release the results of his latest megapoll of marginal seats. The last such poll, conducted in September 2013, showed Labour enjoying a 8.5 per cent swing in the marginals (mainly due to disgruntled Lib Dem voters giving up on Nick Clegg) compared with a six per cent swing nationally – enough to give them a comfortable majority.

Will Ashcroft's new poll show Labour support collapsing in the marginals as it appears to have done nationally? Watch this space. ·