Just how electable is Jeremy Corbyn, really?

Posted in Labour leadership, Politics on August 22nd, 2015 by Leo – Be the first to comment

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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Londoners hate London; South Westerners love the South West (maybe)

Posted in London on June 30th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Londoners hate London; South Westerners love the South West (maybe)

Twitter has been grouching this week about journalists saying their life is better now they’ve moved out of London.

Being grumpy about people leaving London fits the stereotype of Londoners rather well – particularly when they secretly want to leave too. But do Londoners actually want to quit the capital?

Helpfully, Opinium asked something like this in their “Britain Uncovered” poll for the Guardian earlier this year. And yes, Londoners are indeed the most likely to say they’d least like to live in the place they currently do. Just.

Ignore this chart. It's just margin of error.

My other favourite stereotype-reinforcing finding from the poll is from the question on quality of life. People in the South-West really do think they have it better than everyone else (by miles).

This one, however, is not MoE

Boring words of warning: the poll wasn’t weighted at the regional level so it’s not a representative sample. And the sample sizes aren’t that big: dipping to 41 for the region with the fewest respondents (Wales). So you really can’t conclude from the poll that Londoners most want to leave. It’s well within the margin of error, and the weighting adds further uncertainty. The second chart probably stands up, though.

Still, as long as we don’t look too closely, it seems that Londoners really do hate London and South Westerners are indeed smug living the good life. Maybe.

Is the Lords really less proportionate than the Commons?

Posted in Politics on June 26th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Is the Lords really less proportionate than the Commons?

The Mail Online has a piece today stirring up anger about apparent plans to give the Lib Dems “up to six” new places in the House of Lords.

The story’s illustrated with an image comparing numbers of MPs, peers and votes for each party.

But the story compared the number of seats in the Lords with those in the Commons – as if the number in the Commons is, by definition, representative.

One could argue that the number of seats in the Commons is a good benchmark, because that’s what’s produced by the electoral system we have. But, that same logic could be used to argue that the number of seats in the Lords should also be appropriate – as that’s also the product of the system we have.

What I found difficult to grasp from their chart was how the relationship between votes and members in both the Commons and the Lords worked out for each party.

So I’ve redone the chart, dividing both Commons and Lords membership by popular vote:

Poor Ukip.

Now, it’s still clear that the Lib Dems are over-represented in the Lords.

But that’s not by as much as the SNP are over-represented in the Commons. Ironically, the Mail piece has quotes from the SNP explaining how “absolutely absurd” the situation is.

And, between both Houses, both the Tories and Labour are on average more over-represented than the Lib Dems are (1.08 and 1.05 member per % vote respectively, compared with 0.89 for the Lib Dems).

While I find the Lords ridiculous, I’m not sure disproportionality is its greatest weakness – at least while the make-up of the Commons bears so little relationship to the popular vote.

The soft underbelly of climate change policies

Posted in Climate Sock, Energy sources on June 20th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on The soft underbelly of climate change policies

Brits worried about climate change have reasons to be pleased. Our emissions fell last year, global emissions may be turning around, and the Tory government has a new Energy Secretary in Amber Rudd who seems genuinely to care about climate change.

But with the Lib Dem green handbrake gone from government, the UK’s emissions cuts are under attack and may well be facing a greater threat now than they have any time since reducing emissions became government policy.

Now, the principal line of attack is one that people worried about climate change often don’t seem to take seriously, perhaps because it’s not one that comes from clichéd right-wingers. Instead of critics opposing climate policies because they, supposedly, hurt business or growth, the argument is that climate policies directly hurt the poor. This week the Spectator’s editor, Fraser Nelson, made that case.

(Don’t be distracted by the article’s nonsense about climate science: that’s just a stalking horse. No-one serious thinks there’s any reason to doubt what the IPCC says about the relation between emissions and warming)

The logic of Nelson’s argument is that squeezed households of the UK shouldn’t pay more to address climate change than their equivalents in other countries, and that taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be wasted on subsidising inefficient green schemes like biomass boilers. Nelson is respected and influential and you can see the appeal for a Tory government that will increasingly try to occupy the political centreground up to the 2020 election.

One implication of this for green policy has already emerged with the plan to curtail the Renewables Obligation subsidy for onshore wind. Since this is the cheapest form of green power, and, if Nelson’s argument wins, it couldn’t be replaced with more expensive forms (tidal barrages, offshore wind etc), the only option seems to be going all out for fracking in the hope it’ll be a success and bring down costs in the short term.

Fracking probably wouldn’t breach our climate targets until after 2025, by which time ministers in the current government will presumably be gone so won’t have to face the consequences of that breach. But such decisions made now – in the name of protecting the UK poor from the costs of energy policy – would make it much harder and more expensive to get back on target for 80% cuts by 2050.

A similar argument is also made by the right about the supposed costs of climate policy for the world’s poor. It holds that the pursuit of renewable energy, being more expensive than fossil fuels, is slowing down development and so doing harm in poorer counties. Use of developing countries’ land to grow biofuels is criticised on a similar basis.

The logic of this is, again, that the focus in these countries should be on reducing poverty rather than emissions (ironically, some argue against emissions cuts in rich countries on precisely the (false) premise that poor countries aren’t cutting their own emissions – the two arguments together would amount to no-one ever cutting emissions).

The challenge for people worried about climate change is that these critics are onto something. Poorer households in high-emitting countries shouldn’t pay more to limit climate change if wealthier households can pay instead. We shouldn’t be prioritising spending taxpayers’ money on poorly structured subsidies for green heating of rich people’s homes. And the poorest people in the world certainly shouldn’t see slower development and less secure access to food than they would if their countries followed a high-emitting path to development.

Climate policy advocates already make some arguments to address all this. An IPPR report this week showed how subsidies for renewables should be restructured to avoid costs falling on poorer households. And the international arguments are easy to refute: no-one I know of now advocates biofuel use if it threatens forests or food supplies, and renewable energy projects are subsidised internationally so they don’t cost more than plants that burn fossil fuels (although even then, we should indeed look at whether the subsidies could be better spent on development, particularly to increase resilience to a more unstable climate, with greater emissions-reductions coming from wealthier countries).

But still, those arguments aren’t yet sufficiently developed by people worried about climate change, nor are they made often enough.

Increasingly, it is people arguing against emissions cuts who claim to be on the side of the poor – campaigning against environmental activists who are presented as blindly pursuing climate policies with no regard for their cost. It’s becoming the soft underbelly of climate policies, vulnerable to attack in the way the earlier battlegrounds (climate science, feasibility of emissions cuts) no longer are.

While there’s much to cheer in the UK’s efforts to reduce emissions, people worried about climate change need to recognise that the arguments have moved on. The new attacks are putting them in danger of being cast, absurdly, as the ones who don’t care about the poor – and giving an excuse for the watering down of the successes of the last decade.

Where the Papal climate change encyclical gets it wrong

Posted in Climate Sock on June 17th, 2015 by Leo – 2 Comments

The Pope’s encyclical will, apparently, tomorrow warn that we need to make significant changes if we’re to avoid “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem”.

Despite many reservations about the people who run the Catholic Church, it would be silly of those of us worried about climate change not to welcome Pope Francis’ intervention.

But I think the encyclical makes one important mistake.

According to the leaked draft, the encyclical will say: “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the greater part of global warming in recent decades is due to … human activities”.

From a communications perspective, raising the question of whether or not climate change is real makes very little sense. By bringing up the question of human contribution, the Pope is drawing attention to and prolonging a debate that shouldn’t exist on the scale it currently does.

Climate scientists overwhelmingly think current warming is principally or entirely due to human activity. There’s no serious doubt about the link – and only very small numbers of people (outside America) think climate change is a hoax.

But some of those who want to stop action on climate change have long sought to fabricate the existence of a debate about whether or not human activity is the cause. By engaging with this debate, even to take one side, the Pope is legitimising it and wasting time that could be spent talking about why it matters.

If we see any headlines along the lines of: “Pope: global warming is real”, he’s scored an own goal. (see update below)

He’s far from alone in this. The first report of the Adaptation Sub-Committee starts, “The overwhelming majority of experts agree that the global climate is changing, and that most of this is caused by human activity”. And the worst culprit is the IPCC, whose Assessment Reports are timed so the lion’s share of the coverage goes to the one that says, essentially, “Scientists still say climate change is real”: the most predictable missed opportunity in climate communications.

By way of comparison, suppose a government white paper outlining a ban on smoking in indoor public places started with a line that scientists indicate lung cancer is often caused by smoking. It would create the false impression of there being a debate (why else would they need to say it?), where there is none (at least, not one that need consume media and public time since the opposing view is so overwhelmed by the evidence). And suppose the coverage ran: “Government: smoking causes cancer”.  We would see it for what it is: a waste of our time.

Update 18/6:  The BBC’s headline, as I warned:

 Telegraph getting in on the action too:


Can Labour win from the left?

Posted in Labour leadership, Politics on June 14th, 2015 by Leo – 4 Comments

Labour’s leadership election is increasingly a debate about whether or not the party was too left-wing at the last election. This is my go at adding to that debate.

To win in 2020, Labour needs to gain about 50 seats directly from the Tories, to produce a net gain of roughly 100 seats. That’s ignoring boundary changes, which would make things harder for Labour, but since they might not pass, let’s take the seats as they are now.

It’s clear that a major factor in Labour’s defeat was perceptions of it as economically unreliable, as I wrote here. So long as the economy isn’t booming in five years or at least is still an important factor in influencing votes – which I think is almost certain – this is a weakness Labour has to address.

But at the same time, left-wing economic policies poll well. The GQR poll shows support (particularly among people who considered Labour but didn’t vote for them) for a slower pace of spending cuts, being tougher on the banks and increasing taxes on the rich. Other polls consistently show the popularity of policies like renationalising the railways.

So there’s a paradox. On the one hand, there’s widespread support for economically populist policies; but on the other, people vote against parties they don’t see as economically prudent.

For now, I’m going to assume these positions can’t be reconciled by 2020 and so Labour has to choose between them. Some might disagree with this, but I think it’s reasonable. Labour is so distrusted on the economy at the moment and the Tory framing of austerity is so dominant it would be unavoidable that economic populism would be painted as irresponsible – and many people would believe that argument. Until it has reserves of economic credibility, there’s no quantum rabbit Labour can pull from the hat: one that’s simultaneously economically populist and seen as financially prudent.

Let’s look at the electoral implications for Labour of adopting either a leftist position of populist economics, which costs votes among those who’ll only vote for prudence; or a centrist position of austere economics, which costs votes among those who’ll only vote for left-wing economics.

I’m also going to assume that Miliband was perceived to have presented neither of these positions. Again, I think this is reasonable because, while he was widely painted as left-wing, Labour’s manifesto wasn’t particularly anti-austerity and the leadership clearly fought against the label of being the anti-cuts party. His leadership demonstrated the futility of alternating between policies that do both: promising a Mansion Tax and abolition of the Bedroom Tax while still pledging huge cuts seemed to confuse voters about his priorities. This means I’m not going to estimate the loss of 2015 Labour voters with either position: I’ll assume Labour’s voters were generally not either die-hard anti-austeritarians or bone-dry prudentialists, and the loss of voters from either wing would balance out.

Starting with the leftist position, let’s say it allows Labour to win every Green voter. In that case, Labour would gain 12 seats, 10 of which would come from the Tories. A start, but not enough.

How about Ukip voters? We know they generally like economic populism, and the GQR poll shows their economic views are more like those of Labour voters than of Tory voters (they would prefer Labour to help those in poverty rather than on middle incomes, they support higher taxes on the rich etc). Their top reason for considering Labour was that they saw it as being on the side of ordinary people; their second biggest doubt about the Tories was their view it’s on the side of the rich and powerful. If Labour could win every Ukip voter, it’d gain 67 seats, of which 63 would come from the Tories. Every Green and every Ukip voter switching to Labour would give 83 seats, of which 78 are from the Tories – enough for a comfortable majority.

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Heathrow or Gatwick expansion makes it much harder to meet our climate targets: so why no Option 3?

Posted in Climate Sock, London, Transport on June 6th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Heathrow or Gatwick expansion makes it much harder to meet our climate targets: so why no Option 3?

The debate about UK airport expansion has been framed brilliantly by the pro-expansion side, at the expense of climate change.

The Airports Commission is expected to publish its report on London airport expansion this month – recommending a new runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow.

As things stand, we can only meet the UK’s 80% emissions reduction target if our aviation emissions in 2050 are no higher than they were in 2005.

This could allow for a 60% increase in flights, balanced by improved efficiency and use of sustainable biofuels. That assumes a cut of 85% in emissions from other sectors: the Committee on Climate Change have said they don’t think it’s plausible to count on even greater cuts to balance higher emissions from aviation.

Yet, the Department for Transport’s UK Aviation Forecasts predicts that, even without airport expansion, passenger numbers will more than double by 2050 and emissions will hugely overshoot the target (about 40% above the 2010 level).

It suggests that, if it isn’t constrained by airport capacity, UK aviation would be about 10% greater (I was surprised by how little difference there is).

So even without expansion we appear to have a problem with reconciling flying and meeting our climate targets. Expanding our airports will make this problem even harder. And if we do expand in the South East, there will be even less chance to expand elsewhere – hardly boding well for a rebalancing of the economy.

But that challenge is barely being talked about in the debate about airport expansion.

This, I think, is down to how well the debate’s been framed by those who want expansion: the question is whether we should expand at Heathrow or at Gatwick, not whether there should be an option 3 of not expanding at all.

I’m reminded of Damian McBride’s observation that the up-side for Labour of the Blair-Brown battles was that the media focused on those and ignored the Tories.

The entire focus of airport expansion coverage (and polling) is now on the question of where, not whether.

Similarly, the way the environment is discussed has been framed in a way that helps the pro-airport side.

Gatwick’s marketing talks extensively about the environment, by which they mean local noise and air pollution.

Climate change is typically treated by the media as an environmental (not an economic or social) issue, so Gatwick’s framing of the environmental impacts as local, rather than global, means that climate change is pushed off the table: there’s only so much time the media can devote to a ‘niche’ issue like the environment.

Together, this means the debate’s been framed as a battle between Heathrow and Gatwick, while the environment is a metric by which their local impacts can be judged.

Probably as a result of this, there’s been little recent polling on whether or not people actually want a new runway.

The latest I can find is from Opinium’s poll for Carbon Brief in January 2013, which had 39% supporting an increase in flights from the South East, 16% opposing, and 45% in the middle or don’t know. While it doesn’t point to much opposition, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of enthusiasm either.

It suggests an effective opposition movement could do a lot to shift public opinion: much as the XL Pipeline protests have in the US. But they’d need to start with the recognition that their side of the debate is currently not recognised as valid.

Nevertheless, there’s an enormous challenge of expanding airport capacity while meeting our legal climate targets, and public opinion appears still to be largely undecided about expansion. Given that, it’s strange that the debate has been so limited.

Polling Matters podcast: How can Labour recover?

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on June 1st, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Polling Matters podcast: How can Labour recover?

In this week’s Polling Matters, I joined Keiran Pedley, Rob Vance, Prof John Curtice and Lord Foulkes to discuss Labour’s future. We talked about how it can regain support in both Scotland and South East England, and what the leadership candidates offer.


The problem for Labour isn’t toxicity, it’s credibility

Posted in Politics on May 27th, 2015 by Leo – 1 Comment

This piece first appeared on LabourList

Polly Toynbee writes today that it would be a mistake for the next Labour leader to ditch the party’s most recent policies.

In her view, the party lost the election not because of its policies but because of its reputation and leader.

If that were the case, the party could win the next election with similar policies – so long as it addressed its other weaknesses.

But can you separate the policies from Labour’s weaknesses? That is, did Labour lose because of its policies or despite them?

recent GQR poll for the TUC looks at these questions – but appears to give contradictory answers.

The poll unmistakably shows that the gap in perceived economic competence was crucial. It was the biggest factor helping the Tories (the top two reasons for voting Tory were that the economy was recovering, and the deficit was being cut); and hurting Labour (the top reason for not voting Labour was that they couldn’t be trusted with the economy).

And only 1 in 4 respondents think Labour had a good track record in government, compared with 1 in 2 for the Tories.

Popular policies

But, it also suggests that many of Labour’s policies were popular.

Labour made the NHS a major part of its campaign. It was the issue that respondents – including people Labour lost from 2010 to 2015: ‘Lost Labour’ – say most determined their vote, out of 13 tested. The poll also found Labour had a 57pt lead over the Tories on the NHS among Lost Labour.

And Labour’s economic policies seem to have been popular.

By comfortable majorities, voters – and particularly Lost Labour – say Labour should prioritise people in poverty over those on middle incomes; should be tougher on banks; should increase taxes on the rich; and should cut public spending more slowly.

The poll found strong support for each of the economically populist policies it tested: increasing the minimum wage and pensions, banning zero-hour contracts, cracking down on tax evasion by the rich, and building more houses.

There’s even a clear lead for predistributive economics: increasing low wages rather than reducing inequality through the tax system.

We also know from other polls – like this by ICM for the High Pay Centre – that Ukip voters are typically fiscally left-wing, suggesting a way for Labour to win back many of them.

So this interpretation suggests Labour could do well with an economically populist position. Essentially, it says Miliband’s instincts were electorally popular; he just failed to be heard or to convince people he could deliver.

Sum of the parts

But you could quite reasonably look at the poll and conclude it shows that those policies made it impossible for Labour to shake off the reputation for economic incompetence.

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