We can now be certain that Labour will end 2022 having led in every single opinion poll published during this tumultuous political year.  Nearly all opposition parties have historically led at some point during their parliamentary cycle, but very few have gone on to win the next general election and just two of the last ten general elections have resulted in a change of governing party.  Despite this, the mood among most pundits and politicians is that a Labour government – or at least a Labour-led government – is now the probable outcome of an election that is widely expected to be held in 2024. 

Such an assumption would have seemed almost laughable until very recently because the election of any sort of Labour government requires a host of electoral records not just to be broken but to be rendered completely obsolete.  Labour emerged from the 2019 election with just 32.9 per cent of votes cast behind the Conservatives’ 44.7 per cent.  Their 202 MPs was their fewest since the 1930s and the Conservatives’ 365 their most since 1987.   If you line up all Conservative-held seats by their marginality, Labour would need to win all of them which have a majority of less than 27 per cent in order to make the 124 gains necessary to have an overall majority of just one, which translates into a required swing from Conservative to Labour of 13.5 per cent. But Labour is now increasingly confident of winning when the election comes. 

To place that in context, only once since 1945 has either main party managed a swing of more than six per cent in a general election – Labour’s 10.3 per cent in 1997.  To reach 326 MPs Labour must increase its number by more than 60 per cent, again higher than has ever been achieved before.  And while the Conservatives’ 12 percentage point lead in votes is smaller than in for example 1983 and 1987 their overall vote was larger than that of Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined, the first time since 1955 that either main party has won a majority of the three-party vote.  That means of course that even if every single Liberal Democrat voter switched to Labour the Tories would still be ahead in votes and that Labour must win over significant numbers of direct switchers from the Conservatives which historically, they have rarely managed. 

Nevertheless, the polls are clear that that is exactly what Labour would do were an election to be held today.  Their average lead of about 20 percentage points far exceeds anything they have managed since losing power in 2010 and is matching the kinds of margins which were the norm in the run-up to their landslide victory of 1997.  So, the question is, should these polls indeed be taken at face value or are they reflecting not true voting intentions but a more typical mid-term disillusionment with the government. 

Can the polls be trusted? 

The headline voting intention of any poll is a product not just of the raw results of fieldwork and how robust the sample of respondents is, but numerous technical factors whose application varies between pollsters, often as a matter of judgement rather than science.  These include weighting results according to likelihood to vote, matching the claimed past voting behaviour of respondents with actual election results, and how to allocate those undecided voters who refuse to give any party preference.  The way different pollsters deal with these variables partly determines the disparities in their findings. 

Polls tell us that the flows of voters between parties are complex but usually largely cancel each other out.  Any party retaining more than 75 per cent of those who voted for it in the previous election is doing very well.  The principal driver of the recent collapse of Conservative support in the polls is that their retention of 2019 voters has fallen from roughly 60 per cent in June (when they were already behind), to about 40 per cent.  Crucially the number switching to Labour, the single biggest lever on voting intention, has more than doubled from about five to 12 per cent over that period.  But by itself that switch represents a swing of less than five per cent, not sufficient for Labour even to be the largest party.  To win an election they need many of those currently undecided ex-Tories to commit to another party. 

There is no reason to suppose that what the respondents are saying to the pollsters is in any way distorted by these technicalities and the different polling organisations are all telling broadly the same story.   

The two main inflection points in the polls over the last year or so were firstly the emergence of the first ‘partygate’ stories at the end of 2021 at which point a gradual drift towards Labour accelerated and they moved into the lead, and secondly the aftermath of the September Financial Statement and consequent demise of Liz Truss.  It would have been extraordinary had the latter not had an effect on the Conservatives’ popularity and over the course of barely more than a week Labour’s lead surged from about ten points to peak at 30 points before settling at the current margin. 

2022 Monthly voting intention averages by party 

 Lab Con LD Reform Grn Oths 
January 40% 32% 11% 3% 6% 9% 
February 40% 34% 10% 3% 6% 8% 
March 39% 35% 10% 4% 6% 9% 
April 40% 34% 10% 3% 6% 9% 
May 39% 33% 11% 3% 6% 8% 
June 39% 33% 12% 3% 5% 8% 
July 41% 32% 12% 3% 6% 7% 
August 41% 32% 12% 3% 5% 7% 
September 44% 30% 10% 3% 6% 8% 
October 52% 24% 10% 4% 5% 8% 
November 48% 26% 9% 5% 5% 8% 
December 47% 27% 9% 6% 5% 6% 

Labour has recently held two seats in parliamentary by-elections – in City of Chester and Stretford & Urmston – in which the Conservative vote collapsed compared with 2019.  The swing achieved in Chester was just above the 13 per cent required for an overall majority, and in Stretford & Urmston it was 11 per cent.  These were excellent results for Labour, albeit in very low turnouts.  

What will all this mean in a General Election? 

Labour will want to turn 2022’s loss of confidence in the Conservatives into a decisive and permanent switch of voters to Labour which would be sufficient for them to form a government. 

The nagging concern which the Tories now have is that a Labour victory – almost unimaginable after the 2019 election – is increasingly likely. Conservative strategists worry that that a psychological tipping point has been reached in which the country almost unconsciously decided that they had outstayed their welcome and that it is time for a new government.   

The Conservative’s new leader may have more electoral appeal than his predecessor, but the Conservatives may just be irredeemable.  It is premature to assume that a Labour government is a certainty, but a Conservative government, certainly another Conservative majority, is now a receding prospect.