“Don’t believe the polls, don’t believe the polls,” I muttered to myself, picking up a sheaf of newspapers at the Eurostar WH Smith. Good place to read them; the Eurostar interzone is a hilarious mirror world, where copies of Charlie Hebdo jostle with Take a Break magazine, and the Irish pub is run by French people who have to have most drinks explained to them (“whaaaat eez zis Pimmmmms?”).
They all had the polls, in blue, pink and yellow — that poll, showing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour on 39%, only three points behind the Tories. Thirty-nine percent! Close to cracking the 40% barrier! Blair himself only cracked 40 (40.7%) in 2001, and came nowhere near it in 2005, with 35.7%. Thirty-nine! It would be enough to hang the Parliament, creating all sorts of possibilities.
But, as sometime Tory pollster (and Hillary pollster) Jim Messina noted on Twitter, such polls may well be laughable; national aggregates based on sloppy determination of “likely” voters. They got it badly wrong last time, especially so YouGov, which produced the recent poll showing the Tories going down to 310 seats, making a Labour-coalition majority just about possible.
People in the centre of the movement have remained sceptical about the scale of the poll shift. But there’s no doubt that there’s been a directional shift. That has had an effect on the campaign, with people who’d been slogging away at canvassing and doorknocking, expecting nothing more than to go backwards again and suffer the condescension of the right, now feeling that they might actually be making a difference. “It’s been like a mass orgasm,” an inner-city organiser said to me, a little grossly. “People are ringing the phone off the hook.” He’s old enough to have seen it before — old enough to use the phrase “ringing off the hook” — but even he could not hide his excitement.
Labour also has a simple but effective app “your nearest marginal”, which steers willing volunteers to hot areas, automatically. The sheer number of members Labour signed up on Corbyn’s rise and consolidation — more than 200,000 — may now be having an effect. For the first time in decades, a major political party in the West has the appearance of a mass political party. You see the red-T-shirted volunteers everywhere (the Blairites tried to retire the colour red, adopting purplish ties, before going “fuck it” and sporting a light blue. Red is back now.) in the outer suburbs, gathering with slight gorm at train stations, looking at printed-out maps, and squinting uneasily at the hellish Garden City they have been deposited in.
Whatever their provenance, the polls can only be a cheer-up to the new Red army, massive or mild. To the Tory rank-and-file, they are a towering and swelling nightmare. There’s no symmetry at all. Labouristas have been resigned to a Tory victory, take some satisfaction from having pushed May to the left — for the moment — and were expecting to be under the Tory lash until 2020 anyway. Tory voters have become accustomed to the idea that Labour can’t get within spitting distance unless they are led by some Blairite podperson that the party’s membership would never select, so they have relaxed their guard accordingly. Many of them genuinely believe that a Corbyn premiership would take the UK back to 1978, 1978 in Bulgaria, and that come June 8, workers would be assembling mountains of garbage in the streets, and the Labour cabinet would appear on Buckingham Palace in grey smocks, saluting passing trolleys loaded with Trident missiles, the people’s first strike, now pointed at Tunbridge Wells.
So the polls are playing havoc with the Tory effort. Labour’s becoming emboldened; the Tories are skittish. Two days ago, Theresa May said that Jeremy Corbyn would go into Brexit talks “naked and alone”, a clear attempt to have us picture Grandad Corbyn like some thin old geezer caught sight of in the changing rooms — “so much spare skin; where does it all go?” — and have a giggle. Two days later, May’s speeches contained almost no mention of Corbyn; word was, polling said the braying piss taking of Corbyn had been counterproductive. Possibly because Corbyn now looks less like a perpetual graduate student, and more like your dad, while Theresa May looks like a Home Counties vampire, who has to be back in Surrey before the sun rises.
In the interim, Labour appears to have caught the Tories out again, with Corbyn announcing a last-minute move to turn up to an ITV leaders’ debate. The channel had allowed the Tories to send, in May’s stead, senior minister Amber Rudd, who has May’s nasty edge and sneering mien. The move was intended to give May the appearance of stooping to conquer; with Corbyn’s sudden announcement of appearing — and his invitation to May to join him — she suddenly looked cowardly, and Rudd’s presence was worse than having no one there at all. Two days earlier they had appeared in back-to-back interviews with Jeremy Paxman – the old attack dog has become a bit shouty, barky — and Corbyn was widely judged to have done better than May. It was here that May said that that if the UK couldn’t get a good deal on Brexit, there would be “no deal”, a statement which gave an intimation to some as to just how precarious the whole Brexit process might be. Labour have been hitting her with it ever since.
Whatever happens in the polls on June 8, one thing has already occurred: Theresa May has been devastated, and in a manner not unlike that of our own dear Malcolm. Her early performance was smart and slick. But that was, in part, because she was being compared with Boris Johnson. The subsequent months and weeks have stripped away all plausability. This bizarre encounter with Plymouth’s local paper has done the rounds:
Sam Blackledge: “Two visits in six weeks to one of the country’s most marginal constituencies — is she getting worried?”
Theresa May: “I’m very clear that this is a crucial election for this country.”
SB: “Plymouth is feeling the effects of military cuts. Will she guarantee to protect the city from further pain?”
TM: “I’m very clear that Plymouth has a proud record of connection with the armed forces.”
SB: “How will your Brexit plan make Plymouth better off?”
TM: “I think there is a better future ahead for Plymouth and for the whole of the UK.”
SB: “Will you promise to sort out our transport links?”
TM: “I’m very clear that connectivity is hugely important for Plymouth and the south-west generally.”
It’s very clear that a candidate like that is going by the numbers, petrified of even the slightest gaffe. Which, of course, becomes the gaffe.
Nevertheless, “Don’t believe Twitter, don’t believe the polls”. But whatever happens, Jeremy Corbyn has stepped up to a role for which life had not suited him, improved immensely in the space of three weeks, not only giving the Labour Party someone to support with confidence, but leaving the Blairite critics and saboteurs looking like the rats they are. You take what you get at the election interzone bar. Whatever happens after that will be enough for the rest of the journey.