About 10 days ago, The Times published an extraordinary voter poll, which the paper commissioned from YouGov: It showed Labour with a three-point lead over the Conservatives in voting intention, and with Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings seven points ahead of those for Prime Minister David Cameron. Here were the headline results:
- Lab: 34%
- Con: 31%
And when asked to rate whether they trusted the party leaders:
- Cameron: 21%
- Corbyn: 28%
The Times played down those results and focused instead on what the poll said about how voters might decide the Brexit referendum.
A cynic might suggest that this was yet another example of the biased Tory press ignoring its own polls in its unfair coverage of Labour. A realist might add that the poll was an outlier — similar polls taken before and after the April 12 YouGov sample show the Conservatives more consistently ahead of Labour, by about four points.
But repeatedly, those same polls also show Labour sometimes pulling neck-and-neck with the Conservatives, or even ahead. On seven separate occasions this year, Labour has polled within 2 points of the Conservatives, twice polled ahead, and once polled dead-even.
This chart over time shows Corbyn’s Labour slowly making ground against the Tories:
This is astonishing, given the media narrative, which runs like this: Corbyn is a socialist who hasn’t changed his ideas since the 1980s. His supporters are reconstituted activists from the once-banned Militant tendency. There is no way British voters — particularly those in the wealthier South — are going to vote for him.
The Conservatives ought to be killing Labour right now. But they are not.
So what is the explanation for Corbyn’s recent surge?
There are two recent events, which partly explain why Cameron is having such difficulty fending off the challenge:
- The first was the release of the Panama Papers, which revealed that Cameron’s father had created an offshore investment fund designed to avoid paying tax in the UK, that Cameron had benefited from that fund, and that Cameron had inherited or been given about £500,000 from his parents in the last few years. That revelation occurred just days before the Times/YouGov poll.
- The second was the news that the restaurant chain Zizzi was “redistributing” the tips its minimum-wage waiters receive to benefit their supervisors, and that those same waiters would be restricted to eating only spaghetti or plain pizza when at work. Other companies — Tesco, B&Q, Caffe Nero, Morrisons and Waitrose — cut staff perks and benefits after the national minimum wage went up to £7.20 an hour.
The stark contrast between the fortunes of the Cameron family (Eton, Oxford, offshore funds, massive inheritances) and everyone else (minimum wage, not keeping your tips, cuts to overtime) say something ugly about life in Britain today.
It’s barely even about politics. It’s about basic fairness. It just doesn’t seem right that the Camerons can arrange their finances to minimise their tax by funnelling money through Panama, while minimum wage workers are taxed at source, pay the full whack, and can’t keep their tips.
This is how inequality works. Tackling inequality isn’t literally about making everyone equal. It’s about whether the rules treat everyone the same way regardless of their wealth.
Here is what that looks like in charts, from HSBC. Bonus pay (which includes all types of extra pay in the economy, not just the stuff bankers get), dipped suddenly as the new minimum wage went into effect. At the same time, unemployment went up for the first time in years:
In other words, you can see inequality at a macro level, not just as a series of anecdotes about the number of houses Cameron has bought and sold in London.
So, next time you’re having one of those conversations in the pub when a friend or colleague tells you the Labour party has got no chance in the next election, remind them that, day after day, millions of low-wage workers see stuff like the Panama Papers in the press. Inequality is real, and it damages our democracy by making society look rigged.