What’s the point of UK climate policy?

Posted in Climate Sock, Energy sources, Politics on November 23rd, 2015 by Leo – Be the first to comment

It’s a strange time for UK climate policy. One week the Foreign Secretary argues that strong action to cut emissions is the conservative thing to do. The next, the Energy and Climate Secretary announces that the UK will close its coal plants, but proposes replacing them with gas while doing little to prevent us missing both our 2020 renewable energy targets and the 4th carbon budget in the mid-‘20s.

It seems the government is content to reaffirm its commitment to our climate targets, without offering policies to achieve them. If that’s the case, what’s the political calculation behind it? Is there a political benefit to the government in going slower on climate change – or might there be a cost to it in doing so?

My conclusions are pessimistic. It may be that the rational response to public views about the climate – for a government that isn’t strongly motivated to act on it for other reasons, like its own convictions, or pressure from backbenchers or industry – is to be perceived to be tackling it, without going so far as to impose significant costs on the public or any groups sufficiently influential to cause them problems.

First, I should be clear that climate denial isn’t important here. For this debate you can largely ignore the often-asked questions about whether people think climate change is real and caused by human activity, which appear to show that a significant proportion (just under half, depending on the question) doubt that we’re responsible for climate change. Those polls reflect politics and identity, more than they do policy preferences.

I can say that because polls consistently find overwhelming support for the principle of limiting our emissions – including from many people who claim to think climate change is a natural phenomenon. For example, a Carbon Brief/Opinium 2013 poll found more than 3 in 4 support the UK working with other countries to cut emissions. That includes a majority of those who say climate change is mostly natural (as well as a quarter of those who said it’s not happening at all).

So there’s clearly widespread public support for the government’s overarching goal of cutting emissions.

But it’s a low-salience issue. A large majority might, when prompted by a poll, say they want the government to cut emissions, but few people care deeply. Consistently, only around one in five people seem to be really worried about climate change. For example, another Carbon Brief/Opinium poll found 19% saying they want the government to prioritise tackling climate change over promoting economic growth.

This has created an incentive for the government to pursue half-hearted climate policies.

The positive side of this is that it could be much worse. A small group of people – perhaps 15% at most, depending where you draw the line – oppose any attempt to cut emissions. But if the government did what these people want, for example by repealing the Climate Change Act, it would almost certainly alienate the much larger proportion who normally don’t think about the issue but still want it dealt with.

The image below shows what I mean by this.

I’ve arranged a few of the UK’s existing climate policies in rough order of the level of public opposition they face, from left (less opposition) to right (more opposition). Some policies are opposed by nearly nobody, like better home insulation and incentives for cleaner cars*. Others face more widespread opposition: mostly those that impose visible costs.

Government climate policy seems to be aimed at appealing to the majority of people, in the centre and right of the chart, who want it to deal with climate change, rather than at those who resist nearly all such measures.

UK climate policy 1

That’s the good news. The bad news comes when we wonder why the government doesn’t go further with its climate policies.

There’s certainly a strong case for it to do more. The UK is currently off course for the 2020 renewable energy target, it’s looking like the 4th carbon budget in the mid-‘20s will be a struggle, and we’re about to get a 5th carbon budget that will presumably set another target we’re heading towards missing.

There’s plenty the government could do to correct this if it had the inclination. A higher cap for the Levy Control Framework (or better still, a more progressive alternative) could stimulate investment in renewable power; much more effort on clean heating could begin to wean us off gas boilers; and decent incentives and infrastructure for electric vehicles could greatly increase their uptake.

The trouble is, all of these would put more costs on the public, either through energy bills or some other mechanism**. Then there’s aviation, which has to be reined in if we’re to fulfil the Climate Change Act: ultimately meaning people will have to take fewer flights than they want at current prices.

But, despite an overwhelming majority of people saying the government should tackle climate change, there doesn’t look to be much appetite to accept costs like higher energy bills and less international travel.

I’ve extended the image to the right to reflect this. For example, a ComRes poll this weekend found only 23% saying they’d be prepared to pay more for energy bills to reduce climate change. This is further to the right than the measures we saw previously.

Now we see that government policy doesn’t only cut out the people who oppose all climate policy; it also excludes the views of those who want stronger measures than we currently have. Policies are mostly aimed at the people in the middle – still the majority – who say they want measures to cut emissions, but aren’t prepared to accept more costs to achieve them.

UK climate policy 2

It’s not hard to see the attraction for the government. Pursuing the policies in the middle allows it to say it’s acting on climate change, thus inoculating itself against the attack that it’s undermining our future. This keeps climate change as a low-salience issue. Most people don’t care enough to wade through the arguments about whether it’s doing enough. Meanwhile, if it adopted the policies on either the left or the right of the scale it would presumably alienate some of those in the middle.

But our current policies are nevertheless insufficient to meet the tough climate targets we face over the next decade. Achieving those would require the government to spend political capital arguing that we need measures (those at the right of the scale) that currently don’t have much support.

The make-up of the group on the right, who’d support higher costs for climate policies, is interesting. Among those who say they’d pay higher energy bills to tackle climate change, the Tories aren’t doing badly: they’re winning about as many of these people as they are of the whole population. So, the Tory brand doesn’t seem to be toxic to people who support higher-cost climate policies. That might suggest there could be a political gain for the Tories in going further with such policies: if they’ve already won some of this group, it’s possible they could win some of the 28% of Labour supporters or 35% of Lib Dem supporters who say the same.

But, the age and social grade splits show how this is a bit more complex. Support for such policies is particularly strong among the young (37% of 18-24 vs 19% of 65+) and social grades AB (29%) rather than C2 (19%) or DE (16%). On the one hand, there may be AB Labour voters who will be alienated by Corbyn and winnable for the Tories. But on the other, the Tories are clearly determined to retain their support among pensioners; and the damage tax credits cuts could do to their support among harder-up working families may well discourage the Tories from doing anything to further alienate those voters.

Adopting stronger climate policies could boost the Tory reputation as being modern and having a plan for the next 10 to 20 years: this might help them win younger, more affluent Labour/Lib Dem voters. But set against this is the damage that such policies might do to their support among less-well-off working voters. Since the latter group are often a key swing demographic in marginal seats, such concerns might explain why climate policies seem to be slanted in their favour.

Clearly this is an enormous challenge for those of us who want the UK to adopt policies that give a good chance of meeting our climate targets. To overcome this, the political cost of adopting such policies needs to be reduced (eg by devising them so the burden falls more on those who can most afford it) or the cost of not taking them needs to be increased (eg by getting better at showing why decent climate policies are needed).

Few politicians want to say that we’re going to have to accept restrictions, especially when it’s for a goal that not very many people are exercised about (unlike, say, security from terrorism). The government has so far shown little sign of taking this on, preferring instead to remain within a comfort zone where it’s mostly safe from being attacked for doing too little on the climate. Unless either the government develops a zeal for cutting emissions, or there’s a public shift towards wanting tougher climate policies, it’s not clear where the pressure will come from for this to change.



* The placing of the policies here is partly based on my own estimates. There are some numbers behind them, for example, the goal of signing international climate deals has a net support of +45pts and the carbon floor price has a net support of -11pts. But responses to questions about these policies depend very much on question wording and I haven’t seen any polls that test all of them in a comparable way. For example, I’ve put the “home improvements” policy on the left, but it moves rapidly to the right when it’s described in terms of the cost added to energy bills. The precise order doesn’t matter that much for the point I’m making.


** If we assume higher carbon prices, consistent with the Climate Change Act, in the ‘20s and ‘30s, a UK energy supply without more renewables would in fact be more expensive than otherwise – but this is still too obscure a point to be taken seriously in media coverage and public opinion.

How Labour can take on the government’s energy and climate policy

Posted in Climate Sock, Energy sources, Politics on November 6th, 2015 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published on LabourList.

After tax credits, energy and climate policy are now the Tories’ greatest vulnerability and should be a top Labour priority. But while the shadow team have been attacking the Government, their criticisms haven’t yet damaged the Tories, allowing them to get away with policies that are killing jobs and unnecessarily increasing bills.

On energy, there’s an opportunity for Labour to label the Tories’ current approach as incompetent, with recent decisions appearing to be contradictory. One minute, the Government is cutting subsidies for solar and wind: both clean and popular sources of power. The next, it’s signing a deal for a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point that commits to generating electricity for decades at eye-watering costs.

This allows Labour to argue that the government’s decisions are directly making life worse for people across the country. The unexpected slashing of support for solar has already cost over 1000 jobs and the industry claims up to 27,000 are at risk as a result of government policy.

At the same time, the nuclear deal is expected to add over £1bn a year to households’ energy bills: the equivalent of around £40 per household, every year, for 35 years. While we need new power sources, few outside the government argue this is the best-value way of providing it.

Put these together and you’ve got a neat criticism of Government policy. We’re losing skilled manual jobs in what should a growth industry, while also putting an unnecessary cost on already-stretched families. Both fit with the tax credits frame that the government is undermining work and adding to the burden on poorer families.

The combination of the two is important, as it allows Labour to show it’s not just looking for government subsidies to protect jobs and promote growth, but that it also expects public money to be spent well and not wasted on overpriced vanity projects.

To her credit, Lisa Nandy has been attacking the government on this and Labour is developing policies for community energy production. But it’s been left to her and the rest of the shadow Energy and Climate Change team to take on the Tories about these issues and they haven’t had much attention from those not already interested in the area.

Labour could do more damage if the leadership gave this a higher priority. This is an opportunity to either force a change in policy or do lasting damage to the Tories’ reputation: the Hinkley Point contract could be seen as their Millennium Dome, but for now it’s not getting enough attention.

Similarly, Labour can force a change in the Government’s climate policy.

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Do women really oppose fracking because they don’t understand science?

Posted in Communications, Energy sources on October 23rd, 2015 by Leo – 1 Comment

The new chair of the fracking industry body has annoyed a lot of people today by apparently saying women oppose shale gas extraction because they’re driven by instinct, not facts.

In the Times (£) interview (also quoted here), Professor Averil Macdonald said “women have not been persuaded by the facts [about fracking, and] more facts are not going to make a difference… They know that they don’t know and they don’t understand… we have got to understand the gut reaction… women are always concerned about threats to their family more than men. We are naturally protective of our children.”

It’s ok if you want to take a few seconds to smash everything.

Back with me? Right, let’s look at the facts.

First, are women less supportive of fracking? It certainly seems so. The latest YouGov/Nottingham poll finds 58% of men in favour, compared with 32% of women. The DECC tracking poll (the one I think is too expensive) finds a similar split*, and a YouGov/Sunday Times poll shows an even bigger gap.

So, the first part does look to be true: women are more likely to oppose fracking.

Secondly, are women less likely to be persuaded of the facts about fracking?

Since the facts about shale – like whether it causes earthquakes, contaminates drinking water, will cut energy bills or reduce our emissions – are disputed, it’s hard to say whether women accept the ‘facts’.

What Professor Macdonald presumably means is that women tend not to be persuaded by what she considers to be facts, ie that fracking is safe and generally a Good Thing.

If that was all, her comments perhaps wouldn’t be that controversial: she’d be saying women don’t support fracking because they disagree with the industry’s arguments. But that wouldn’t be very interesting and she’s, understandably, had a go at explaining why. Hence the claim, “they also know that they don’t know and they don’t understand”, so they go on gut instinct.

This, we can partly test. The Notts poll provides a bit of evidence for it: 85% of men correctly identify the process of ‘fracking’ as producing ‘shale gas’, compared with 65% of women.

This tells us only a little. At best, it shows that men are more likely to be aware of the terms relating to shale gas: it doesn’t say anything about their understanding or acceptance of the ‘facts’ relating to it.

What’s more, other polls show that men are more likely to claim to know things they don’t. When Carbon Brief tested recall of climate stories last year they included some made-up stories as a benchmark. For the most ‘recalled’ of those fake stories, men were a third more likely than women to say they’d heard it: about the same proportion as the difference in the shale question. So, some of the apparent evidence for men knowing more about shale could be to do with women being less willing to guess when they’re not confident. This can’t explain all the gender gap though, as you’d expect many of the winging-it men to get the wrong answer about shale gas.

But, this notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to go along with Professor Macdonald so far: women are less likely to support fracking and seem less confident than men in their knowledge about it.

That’s not enough though. Macdonald suggests a causal link: she argues women don’t support fracking because they know that they don’t know much about it, and so they go with their feminine instincts to protect their families and oppose such things.

There are a couple of problems with this (leaving aside the massive claim that women care more about their families than men do. Show me evidence or don’t make such big claims.)

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Heathrow expansion, climate change and virtue signalling

Posted in Climate Sock, Transport on October 11th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Heathrow expansion, climate change and virtue signalling

“Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today… It is in our national interest to act and ensure others act with us”

David Cameron is the only party leader who signed that pledge in February still in his job, but both Clegg and Miliband’s successors have echoed the sentiment and there’s apparent cross-party consensus that climate change is a serious problem that requires action.

But while that consensus is a great advance on what came before and produced the Climate Change Act, it masks the reality that political commitment to climate change is weaker than it now needs to be.

For a politician or commentator, saying you want strong action on climate change has become a form of virtue signalling: showing off your supposed commitment to tackling a future, widely-recognised and scientifically-backed worldwide threat that will most hit the poorest and future generations (who generally aren’t your electorate) – all without needing to make any difficult decisions.

You might think I’m having a pop at the government here, and in part I am. Despite Cameron’s February pledge and the election manifesto, which supported the Climate Change Act, the first few months of this government have produced a string of cuts and reversals that look set to undermine efforts to reduce emissions. At the same time, the government has maintained an official commitment to meeting our climate targets.

That’s become well known and a target of campaigners’ anger. But what worries me just as much is the less obvious loss of seriousness about climate change among the kind of people who had previously been its strong allies.

This has become clear with the approaching decision on airport expansion. As I’ve argued, expanding our airport capacity would mean either hugely ramping up ticket prices to cut demand and meet our climate targets or keeping prices constant and failing to meet our targets. Since it would be obviously stupid to build a huge new runway and then direct policy to make sure that new capacity isn’t used, it’s pretty much inevitable that building the runway would mean we don’t achieve our targets.

This is the first really hard climate change decision a UK government has ever had to make – and it’s exposing the thinness of many people’s supposed commitment to tackling the problem.

If it weren’t for the climate problem, I would be tempted to back the runway. It’s true there are some other good arguments against expansion, like whether we really need more capacity, and the effect on local air and noise pollution (so maybe build at Gatwick instead). But clever people say it would produce jobs, make the UK more competitive and bring affordable holidays in reach of more low-income people.

But, we do have that climate problem and I haven’t seen anyone offer a serious way of reconciling expansion and our targets. The Davies Commission’s proposal obviously wouldn’t work, so in reality expansion means giving up a serious expectation that we will meet our target (you might hope for a technological breakthrough, but bear in mind the Davies Commission already relies on this with its implausible ticket-hiking plan, so you would need an even bigger deus ex machina and no serious analyst is predicting this).

And yet, many people who signal their climate virtue also support airport expansion.

A quick search of comments by Labour MPs produces the following:

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Why Labour’s modernisers should back Corbyn’s resistance to Heathrow expansion

Posted in Climate Sock, Transport on September 19th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Why Labour’s modernisers should back Corbyn’s resistance to Heathrow expansion

This was originally published on Labour List.

It’s now clear that Labour will oppose Heathrow expansion. Not only did Jeremy Corbyn say during the leadership campaign that he’d vote against it, but his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, is a vocal opponent.

Many Labour modernisers will be alarmed by this stance. In the eyes of many, one of the top reasons for defeat in May was that the party wasn’t trusted with the economy. To win again, Labour must show it won’t undermine growth.

So during the campaign, the leadership candidates most focused on winning votes from the centre presented themselves as able to regain economic credibility. When the Davies Commission recommended expanding Heathrow, Liz Kendall immediately responded by calling for a decision to build the new runway, which quickly became Party policy.

The political calculation was obvious. While the Tories were split and dithering, supporting Heathrow expansion would allow Labour to outflank them as the party of job creation.

The modernisers presumably considered arguments against expansion, particularly from residents who would be hit by worse air pollution and noise. This seems to be Corbyn’s main objection to it. But it’s understandable that candidates aspiring to lead the country prioritised what they saw as a national benefit over a local cost.

What their calculation may not have taken into account – understandably as it was glossed over in the Davies Report and barely featured in the coverage – was whether expansion can be reconciled with the UK’s climate change targets. This is where what may seem like good politics turns out to be not only bad policy but also bad politics.

The UK is committed under the Climate Change Act to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. So far we’ve done a reasonable job: we’re broadly on course and last year emissions fell by 6%.

Plans for meeting the 2050 target are already generous to aviation. While emissions from the rest of the economy are due to be cut by 85% on 1990 levels, aviation’s emissions are allowed to grow by around 120%. All that emissions growth was already used from 1990 to 2005, but the plans allow for an additional increase in passenger numbers of 60%: a leniency that assumes overall aviation emissions can be kept constant as emissions per passenger are reduced with future technological fixes. This expansion will likely be overwhelmingly for leisure travel: business travel represents less than a sixth of international travel in UK airports and has been falling in both relative and absolute terms.

But, unless aviation growth is limited, we will miss even this generous target. According to the Department for Transport, emissions will be well above their target even without airport expansion; a new Heathrow runway puts us still further off course.

When pushed, the Davies Commission offered an eye-watering solution to meet the target. They suggested reducing demand for flights by greatly increasing the price of carbon (as well as other difficult measures). Even if planes become about a third more efficient, the Commission’s case for expanding Heathrow assumes that a London-New York return ticket should cost around £325 more than now (the range of prices they suggest vary hugely, with some much higher). The Commission’s scenario is based on optimistic assumptions about future technology, so we’d need even greater, and less realistic, breakthroughs to resolve this dilemma.

So the proposal appears to be to expand Heathrow but to avoid using all of the new capacity by making flying so much more expensive it’ll again become available only to richer travellers.

This means it’s impossible to be in favour of more than two out of three of: building and fully using a new runway, keeping flights affordable for poorer travellers, and meeting our climate targets. If you agree the UK should meet those targets and that foreign holidays should be available to poorer families, the policy argument for expanding Heathrow is challenging. Expanding an airport but not using the capacity is so obviously a waste of money I can only assume the Commission doesn’t really think we should meet our climate targets.

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What to look for in polls of Corbyn’s Labour

Posted in Labour leadership, Politics on September 12th, 2015 by Leo – 3 Comments

Most pollwatchers think Corbyn will be somewhere between electoral trouble and a disaster for Labour. To test whether they’re right, what should we look for in the polls?

We expect new leaders to get an initial poll bounce as the public compares them favourably with their predecessor (whose career – like all politicians’ – has just ended in failure) and then for their scores to drift once the negatives come out. I’ve had a look at historical polls (thanks to Mark Pack’s spreadsheet of every poll) to see how long this bounce lasts.

From the first 12 months of polls of each post-war Labour leader’s tenure, there are a few interesting results:

1) Nearly every Labour leader had a boost in the three months after they took over.

2) A few (Gaitskell, Wilson, Miliband) don’t seem to have changed views much: they got a small bounce when they took over, which gently unwound over the year.

3) Nearly all the ones that had a dramatic bounce (Smith, Blair, Kinnock) lost some of that gain but still had most of it after a year…

4) …but the ones that lost support in their first three months (Callaghan, Foot) lost even more before the end of the year (the latter comparison could be bad for Corbyn).

5) Every Labour leader who started with support below 40% immediately increased it by 5pts or more (except Miliband).

6) Brown really should have called that election in 2007.


Labour leaders' first 12 months

Clearly Corbyn’s a special case: Labour have never had a leader like him. Perhaps there’s not so much to learn from this.

But if there are any parallels, I would say anything less than a 5pt boost by Christmas (ie if Labour’s on less than 36%) would be worrying, and support at Christmas lower than where it is now (around 31%) would point towards further loss of support over the coming nine months.

And if Labour sees a major poll boost in the next three months, the following three to six would suggest whether Corbyn’s looking more like a Brown or a (the irony) Blair.

Why I’m no longer so confident the UK will vote to stay in the EU

Posted in Europe on September 1st, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Why I’m no longer so confident the UK will vote to stay in the EU

While the Labour leadership contest – and its gruesome fallout – will still dominate politics for weeks to come, the EU referendum is on its way back into the news. Until recently, I was confident that, barring a shock political event ahead of the vote, In would win. Now I’m much less sure.

There are two reasons for my doubts about the likelihood of an In victory.

The first is the instability of the In/Out polls.

That may seem a strange description of them. YouGov’s tracking poll shows what looks like a secular trend towards In, rather than instability (see below, up to May; recent polls show similar results). Over four years, Out’s lead over In has collapsed, despite the Eurozone and refugee crises. My hunch has been that this is down to people being confronted with the reality of a possible UK exit, which has forced more to engage seriously with the question for the first time.

Remain In looks a little like a global temperatures chart of last few decades.  Hiatus, [look away for a bit], Hiatus, [look away for a bit]

So if there’s been a steady move towards In, why do I refer to instability? The reason is, we’ve still only had a few months of consistent leads for In. Go back just to December and the polls were tied. Go back a year further and Out had a comfortable lead in YouGov’s data. The longer-running Mori data shows Out has been ahead several times since the late ‘70s. Given these shifts, it seems to me too early to say we’ve seen an irreversible shift towards In (though it’s striking that support for In so far seems to have withstood the crises of the last few years).

It’s hard to dispute that views on the EU could well change at least as far as they have over the last eight months. Most people probably haven’t thought about the referendum much yet. As news and arguments develop, In’s lead may still prove to be assailable.

This brings me to my second reason why I’m not so confident of an In victory: opinion about the benefits and costs of EU membership look bad for the In camp. An Opinium poll this weekend showed that some of the underlying views of the EU point more towards Out than to In (I was involved in writing the poll, through my employers, DHA Communications).

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The centre-left has forgotten about climate change

Posted in Climate Sock on August 31st, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on The centre-left has forgotten about climate change

This was originally published on openDemocracy

A growing awareness has spread among people worried about climate change that it can’t be tackled without support from the political right. Recently, several campaigning and research organisations have discussed how climate change can be presented in ways that appeal more to conservative and free-market sensibilities.

But this new focus on engaging the right, welcome though it is, overlooks a problem that is no less threatening to efforts to limit climate change. Worries about the climate aren’t just lacking on the political right: over the last few years, climate change has also largely disappeared as a priority for the centre-left.

Less than a decade ago, it seemed impossible to win power in the UK without a commitment to climate change. As it became clear that restrictions on emissions were inevitable, David Cameron saw the danger in being left behind and went to husky-hugging efforts to show that his party was at least as pro-climate as Labour.

Since the 2010 election, however, the main parties’ commitment to climate change has waned. It was often remarked that the 2010-2015 coalition government failed to live up to its goal of being the ‘greenest government ever’, while the new government, free from the moderating influence of the Liberal Democrats, has already abolished several measures designed to cut emissions. But the journey of the centre-left wing of Labour (that is, the right of the party) has attracted less attention.

The Labour government under Tony Blair, its most centrist leader, was more forward-thinking on tackling climate change than any previous administration. While far from perfect on the environment, Blair’s government pushed world leaders to agree a deal at the Kyoto climate conference, introduced the Climate Change Bill and created the Carbon Trust, among many other measures aimed at cutting emissions. For Labour’s centre-left, just as it was for David Cameron at the time, wanting to address climate change was a sign of modernity rather than something to be embarrassed about.

Economic credibility vs the climate

The economic crisis changed this. Now, the centre-left is overwhelmingly focused on tackling what it considers to be the main reason for Labour’s latest election defeat: the perception that the party can’t be trusted with the economy. In their view, Labour won’t be elected again until it persuades voters that it will never again drive the car into the ditch (as many people see it).

This means demonstrations of economic competence are prioritised over actions to tackle climate change to a greater extent than before. Witness the response of Labour’s leadership candidates to the recent proposal for a new runway at Heathrow. As soon as the proposal was made, Liz Kendall, the most centrist candidate, called on the government to approve the plans. This was quickly confirmed as Labour’s policy.

The political calculation is obvious. If Labour’s centre-left believes the party can’t win without restoring Labour’s reputation for economic competence, the loss of support of the relatively few people greatly concerned about climate change might seem a price worth paying. Their priority isn’t to win over the 1.1 million people who voted Green, but to gain enough support from Conservative voters to form a majority.

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Just how electable is Jeremy Corbyn, really?

Posted in Labour leadership, Politics on August 22nd, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Just how electable is Jeremy Corbyn, really?

This was originally published in the New Statesman.

Whenever I see a picture of Jeremy Corbyn, I find myself smiling. He’s obviously a decent man, hard-working, straight-talking and different from most leading politicians. It’s easy to see why he’s unleashed such enthusiasm, with overflowing rallies and polls suggesting he could win the leadership ballot without even needing second preferences.

But, how representative of the general public are the people who are enthused by Corbyn? Because if they’re unusual in their reaction to the Islington North MP, the fact that he’s likely to win an election of Labour’s supporters wouldn’t tell us much about how he would do in a general election. Indeed, one of the chief criticisms of Corbyn is that the public would find him unelectable.

If Labour under Corbyn would be unelectable it couldn’t do the kind of things the last Labour government did, like introducing the minimum wage, creating the Department for International Development, massively investing in the NHS, introducing devolution to Wales and Scotland, establishing Civil Partnerships and passing the Climate Change Act.

You might notice that the Tories now support all those things. That’s because the other great advantage of being in power is that you set the boundaries of debate, making changes that the next government can’t easily undo. Labour’s period in power made it impossible for the Tories to explicitly oppose the minimum wage, foreign aid, equal love, tackling climate change, and so on.

On the flip side, if Corbyn would make Labour unelectable, the Tories would not only be able to do all the things they can while in power, but also to shift the debate further to the right. This is what Osborne has done with the benefits cap: from being unthinkable a few years ago, it is now widely accepted in policy debates.

So, an unelectable Labour leader would mean Labour couldn’t do the kind of things it does when in power, while the Tories would be free to do the things they want to do and to push the debate further to the right. This suggests that it would be significant if some candidates have a reasonable chance of forming a Labour government, while others have little chance. With this in mind, how confident can we be that Corbyn would make it much harder for Labour to form a government?

The case for it seems strong.

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Combat testing: the Labour leadership poll that I want to see

Posted in Labour leadership, Politics on July 24th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Combat testing: the Labour leadership poll that I want to see

Polls on the Labour leadership have so far pointed to a race between Corbyn and either Burnham or Cooper. The membership seems to favour Corbyn, while the public just about prefers Burnham.

But none of the polls has seriously tested what I’m interested in: which of them would voters actually support in a general election?

The polls of the membership (and registered supporters) have looked at which of the candidates those people support. While the accuracy of the sample of these polls is hugely questionable – and so they might be essentially meaningless  [Update: Election Data has made a good case for why these membership polls seem pretty good]  I have no problem with the question they ask. They’re trying to find out who’s likely to win the leadership election, and do that as best they can.

So far, though, there haven’t been any particularly useful polls of the public. The recent Mori poll asked people about their current views of the candidates. The trouble is, most people have very little idea about the candidates, so the polls are partly a name-recognition exercise and partly a reflection of the tiny amount of knowledge people currently have.

I’m not interested in what people think about candidates they essentially know nothing about. I want to know how they might vote in 2020 if each of the candidates were leader.

To answer that, I’d like to see a poll that did something like the following:

Firstly, a video test of each of the candidates. Show respondents a 30-45 second clip of each candidate. It’s essential they’re talking about the same policy area and in as similar an environment as possible. A Survation poll did this before the election but was limited by having the candidates talking about different issues. I’d even consider giving a couple of (shorter) clips of each to make it as balanced as possible.

Then, ask candidates who of those four they’d most want to vote for. You could test a series of attributes as well, like who is the strongest, most in touch with ordinary people, willing to take tough decisions and so on – but I’m much more interested in the gut response of who people support since that incorporates all the attributes and weights them according to importance.

This video test would, on its own, be much more useful than the questions based on current knowledge.

I’d go further though, and test how vulnerable the candidates are to the attacks they’d inevitably face as leader. I’d try something like this:

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