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John Rentoul answers your questions as Tory popularity plummets in the polls

Opinion polls were not kind to Rishi Sunak this week  (Reuters)
Opinion polls were not kind to Rishi Sunak this week (Reuters)

It seems that Tory popularity has plummeted to a new low - at least if you’re to believe a seat-by-seat opinion poll which suggested that the Conservatives were facing a 1997-style landslide defeat.

However, on Tuesday, just one day after the aforementioned poll results were unveiled, analysis of the new constituency boundaries was published, suggesting it would be hard for Labour to win a majority.

With so much contradictory information out there, I’ve been answering readers’ questions on the polls, Conservative popularity amid the Rwanda bill vote and Labour’s position in the run up to the election.

It is worth noting that there was no actual contradiction between the two pieces of research, but you could be forgiven for being confused. The new boundaries research, by Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, estimated that Labour needs a 12.7 per swing to win a majority – a little more than under old boundaries, which were biased against the Tories.

Rallings and Thrasher’s 12.7 per cent swing equates to a Labour lead in vote share of 13.6 points, compared with an average in current opinion polls of 19 points. But Peter Kellner and Electoral Calculus suggest that, because of Labour gains in Scotland and anti-Tory tactical voting everywhere, Labour may need to be only 5 points ahead to win a majority – even on new boundaries.

Here are eight questions from Independent readers – and my answers from the “Ask Me Anything” event.

Q: We keep hearing about ‘swing’. But we have VERY different parties/leaders compared with the last election. When was the last time that the party offerings were so different from at the previous election?

Matt Houghton

A: One of the reasons swing is such a powerful tool of analysis is that it allows us to make comparisons between political situations that are, as Matt says, very different. Current opinion polls suggest a swing of 15% from Conservative to Labour compared with the 2019 election.

If reflected in actual votes, that would be unprecedented in postwar British politics: the highest swing to date was 10.2% from Con to Lab in 1997.

Q: Do you think a Labour majority or a coalition with the Lib Dems is more likely after the election?

David Grant

A: I now think a Labour majority is more likely than a hung parliament. The opinion polls haven’t moved for a year (see above), and although they might overstate Labour’s advantage when people come to make an actual choice between Starmer and Sunak as PM, the Conservative Party seems to have decided that its best approach to the election is for many of its MPs to take their heads off and run around in circles.

A separate point: if there is a hung parliament, Starmer would be PM of a minority Labour government. The Lib Dems would vote with Labour on key votes, but they would not join a coalition – what happened after the last coalition was too painful.

Q: Will Sunak do the only decent step when he gets defeated with his Rwanda Bill, resign and call an election?

Rasputin007

A: I fear that question assumes that the government will be defeated on the Rwanda bill tonight. I think they will win reasonably comfortably. If they do lose, it would be disaster and Sunak would bring it back tomorrow as a vote of confidence. He would win it then, but the damage to the government’s standing would be so much greater. Even so, he will limp on.

Q: The Independent has run a series of pieces outlining recent dire predictions for the Tories over the last week but this is not really reflected in the Wikipedia graphical summary, Over the year it shows a downtrend in both parties with a slight recent uptick last week following a down trend the week before and the latest Deltapoll poll shows only a 16% lead. A Labour win but no wipe out. This is coupled with poor performance for both Starmer and Sunak as leaders. Where is this recent enthusiasm coming from?

Paddly

A: I accept that headlines sometimes give the impression of change, when the reality is that the opinion polls have been broadly unchanged for the past year. The current average Labour lead is 18-19 percentage points, which is about the same as a year ago. If that were reflected in actual votes, the result would indeed be dire for the Conservatives, with Labour winning a majority of 180-230.

What was surprising about the YouGov seat-by-seat poll that was used by the prime minister’s enemies to hint that he should be replaced, is that it put the Labour majority at “only” 120.

As for enthusiasm, people don’t have to be thrilled by Keir Starmer to think that Labour deserve a chance.

Q: The obsession with small boats makes them look irrelevant and silly. Would it not be better for Sunak to concentrate on those issues that actually affect our everyday lives. Have they no success stories to show us after 14 years in office?

SWPete

A: I think Sunak is caught in a bind on this: he had to respond to the small boats issue, but the promise to “stop the boats” was too emphatic and it does seem strange to draw so much attention to something on which most people think the government has failed to deliver.

But your question identifies the bigger problem, which is the thinness of the government’s positive record. Sunak can say he saved us from recession during the pandemic, and protected people from the worst of energy price rises, but the voters seem strangely reluctant to show any gratitude.

Other possible success stories include the speed of the vaccines and the fact that average earnings are now outpacing inflation, but it seems that Boris Johnson and Liz Truss between them have destroyed the Tories’ reputation in some fundamental way.

Q: The Conservative Party will split into two parties. This means there will be six significant choices come any election time. Tory 1, Tory 2, Labour, Lib Dems, Green, Reform plus Nationalist Parties in Wales and Scotland.

I think this will lead to a system of PR voting. Suddenly these groups will realise it’s their only chance to win a significant number of seats. How realistic do you think this is?

Voxtrot

A: I disagree with your prediction, Voxtrot. The first-past-the-post voting system is a strong disincentive against breakaway parties – as Change UK discovered 5 years ago, and the Social Democratic Party found 41 years ago.

Proportional representation would have to come first, before one of the major parties split, and it isn’t going to happen. Keir Starmer has been emphatic in rejecting it – interestingly, unlike Tony Blair, who pretended to be in favour as long as he was leading the Liberal Democrats up the garden path.

Q: I’m no fan of Sunak, but I’m a little repelled by the personal nature of the reported findings. The quoted terms “spineless and false”, and “cringe” don’t, I think, crop up all that much in everyday language, and I wonder whether they reflect some loaded wording in the poll’s questions? It matters, because if people are over-persuaded of the Tories’ desperate situation, they might not bother to vote.

PeterM

A: I am a strong advocate of focus-group research, but I think it needs to be reported carefully. The JL Partners poll that The Independent reported the other day was a focus group of swing voters – a small and unrepresentative group, but one which could give us some insight into thinking behind bland quantitative polling.

For example, Rishi Sunak records net satisfaction of minus 42 in Ipsos’s latest poll (21% satisfied, 63% dissatisfied), and the focus group gives some clue as to the strength of feeling that lies behind these numbers.

Q: Do polls point to polarisation of the vote — do you think the prevailing winds reduce the chances of success for independent candidates?

Matt Houghton

A: I think the chances of success for independent candidates are always extremely low in our voting system! I don’t know if public opinion has become more polarised: I think support for Reform UK and the Greens has increased for specific reasons, namely Tory turmoil and the growing sense of urgency among young people especially about the climate crisis.

But the result is almost certain to be Reform 0 or 1 seat (if Nigel Farage stands in, say, Clacton); Greens 0, 1 or 2 seats (Brighton Pavilion and Bristol West).

These questions and answers were part of an ‘Ask Me Anything’ hosted by John Rentoul on Wednesday 16 January Some of the questions and answers have been edited for this article. You can read the full discussion in the comments section of the original article.

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