As U.K. election poll predicts Conservative majority, Labour can’t shake its most vexing problem: its leader

With two weeks until the Dec. 12 U.K. election, a new poll is predicting the biggest Conservative majority since the Thatcher era.

Boris Johnson’s party is expected to win 42 more seats than in 2017 while Labour will lose 51, according to the poll by YouGov, the polling agency that used the same model to accurately predict the results of the 2017 vote.

Labour’s chances of unseating Johnson are growing bleaker by the day and are not helped by the one factor that has dogged the party throughout not just this election but the entire Brexit crisis: the unpopularity of its own leader.

Jeremy Corbyn lags far behind Johnson when it comes to likeability, with 21 per cent of eligible voters having a positive view of the Labour leader compared to 35 per cent for Johnson

And while he has enthusiastic grassroots support from people yearning for drastic change, he is struggling to hold on to mainstream Labour voters — and even some of his own MPs.

“That does seem to be a problem for the Labour Party,” said John Curtice, a well-known polling expert and politics professor at the Glasgow-based University of Strathclyde.

The party’s “very radical” position on health care, nationalizing utilities and employee rights are “quite popular,” Curtice said. But when people are asked who can best run the country, “you end up discovering that people think Boris Johnson is better at running the country than the Labour leader,” he said.


Polling expert John Curtice says recent polling suggests Jeremy Corbyn is an unpopular leader. (CBC)

Despite 30 years as a socialist MP on the back benches of his party, Corbyn was seen as a long shot to win the Labour leadership when he entered the 2015 race. But he brought a number of new — and young — voters to the party, and ended up winning handily.

‘Stop Boris’

Corbyn still went into the 2017 election with high levels of unpopularity, but was able to turn it around in the end. While he didn’t win, he secured enough support to force the Conservatives into a minority government.

Curtice said he expects that’s probably the best case scenario for the 70-year-old this time around, too. 

“Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t have to win this election to become prime minister; he has to stop Boris Johnson from winning.”


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn are shown ahead of the opening of Parliament on Oct. 14. (Jack Hill/Reuters)

If Corbyn can do that, he is in a good position to rally together other opposition parties who want a second Brexit referendum and potentially move into 10 Downing Street, Curtice said.

“I think the Labour Party — under the trajectory it’s currently on — is not going to win a general election in a very long time,” said former Labour MP Mike Gapes, who sat with the party for 27 years, before breaking away in February 2019.

Corbyn was the central problem for Gapes, who is seeking re-election this time around as an Independent.

In his home in Ilford on the outskirts of London, a framed letter hangs on the wall, given to him by the party whip for failing to fall in line with the party vote to start the Brexit process. 

“It’s a badge of honour as far as I am concerned,” said Gapes.


British MP Mike Gapes left the Labour Party last February. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

Gapes has a list of issues with Corbyn, including what he sees as a lack of action on anti-Semitism in the party, a weak stance against authoritarian leaders, and an inability to take a clear stand on Brexit.

The longtime Labour member has known Corbyn since the early 80s; back then, he says Corbyn was a maverick who lived on the far left of the party with little power.

While Corbyn has struggled to gain the support of his own MPs, Gapes acknowledges there is a growing group of far-left “true believers” within the party’s membership.

“I think it’s a bit like the Bernie Sanders phenomenon in the United States: They decided they wanted somebody who was an outsider and Corbyn fits that bill.”

Momentum movement

That’s also exactly how Corbyn supporter Holly Rigby sees the Labour leader.

A secondary school teacher in an impoverished area of east London by day, Rigby spends her evenings combining her teaching skills and her love of Labour to train party newcomers about how to best get the message out when canvassing in their communities.

It’s all about the ground game, she said. “So we’re going to teach them how to talk about the policies and the big ideas so that we can win.”


In the lead-up to the 2015 leadership race, Corbyn brought the Labour Party many new members. He continues to have grassroots support, but also faces mainstream criticism that he’s moving the party too far left. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Rigby joined the party because of Corbyn, and while the media and Parliament may be stuck on Brexit, she said the rest of the country has needs that aren’t currently being addressed.

“We’ve never needed a more transformative government, [and] given the climate crisis, the housing crisis and nine years of austerity, I’m absolutely convinced we’re going to win this election,” said Rigby, as she waited in a church rec room in North London for volunteers to arrive. The event was organized by a group of Corbynites called Momentum.

Rigby feels the media has not been giving the Labour leader a fair shake.

“They have to give a more balanced view,” she said. “Then you start to see what Jeremy stands for: His policies and his politics, which I think are hugely popular with lots of the public.”


Holly Rigby trains volunteers for the Labour Party in Harrow, a suburb of London. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Speaking to a crowd of supporters at the party’s launch in late October, Corbyn was clear about his take on the Labour campaign: “This isn’t about me.” Instead, he argued, it’s about a vote to drastically change the trajectory of Britain. 

But the problem is not everyone can handle the same level of change. Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair said this week that what Corbyn is offering is a revolution — before offering a warning. 

“The problem with revolutions is never how they begin, but how they end.”

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