Four thoughts come to mind:
Can you trust any ‘new leader’ polling?
So, we now have polling that shows that having Johnson, Umunna or Burnham would give Labour a bigger lead in the polls right now. Anthony Wells often counsels against putting too much faith in any ‘how would you vote if..’ polls, and I think that is the case here. Voters may well take a ‘grass is always greener’ approach to any suggestion of change, but no one has any idea just how people will react should the Labour leadership change. When people have no idea how someone will actually perform as leader, it’s not a good idea to rely too much on their judgements of how they will vote in a hypothetical scenario.
That said, I do wonder if changing the party leader could have an interesting effect of poll shares by changing the likelihood of party supporters to vote. That’s a question that I’m not sure is ever asked in the hypotheticals, but for me could be a key factor. I’ve said before that I think a lot of UKIP’s success is down to the fact that they can motivate their base to vote better than the other parties, and I wonder if a new leader would motivate Labour voters more – the lesson of Heywood and Middleton is that Labour do seem to have a motivation problem.
Where can Labour get votes from?
Anthony Wells’ excellent diagrams of vote shifts reveal the problems all the main parties are having in holding on to voters in an extremely volatile political environment. The question they pose, though, is where are Labour going to win the voters they need from? They’ve shed votes to Greens, nationalists and UKIP, and it’s hard to see the strategy that can draw voters back from all three of those. Is drawing a small percentage of voters back from the SNP (with the possible benefit of protecting all those Scottish seats) a viable strategy? Or does the party need to be looking at how they draw more voters back from the non-voters, and hope gains from there can dwarf any losses?
Young cardinals, old popes
Alan Johnson is the perfect king over the water because he hasn’t been assembling a faction around him ready to take the leadership, and so all the Shadow Cabinet members who have can step aside in his favour, ready to go for it the next time. (I suspect their scenario imagines Johnson as a one-term PM, with the real leadership contest in 2019/20) However, is it necessarily in the interest of the more established contenders like Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham to take a pass this time? Putting their ambitions on hold for five years would give the next generation (Umunna, Reeves, Creasy et al) plenty of time to stand out and shine, and give Prime Minister Johnson a real influence through Cabinet appointments and the rest in who gets to follow him.
We’re in a very strange time for British politics, one that’s certainly unlike anything else I’ve seen in my lifetime, where all of the established parties are under threat. In this position, Labour ditching Miliband would have inevitable knock-on effects in the other parties. If he goes, that’s just the beginning of the story: suppose a new leader does open up a poll lead for Labour, while UKIP win the Rochester by-election. That seems likely to trigger more Tory defections and/or more calls for Cameron to quit. Given the volatility of the polls, and the variability in shares across the pollsters, it’s entirely possible in that scenario for us to see a poll (however rogue) that puts UKIP in second place and the Tories in third. Could Cameron survive then, and what would be the effect of the Tories trying to replace a sitting Prime Minister a few months before an election when one of the leading candidates to replace him doesn’t have a seat in Parliament.
We live in interesting political times. I look forward to when the historians of the 2030s get to tell us just what was going on, because I’m not sure we’ve got much of an idea right now.