Labour leadership

Why Corbyn’s support may not be as secure as it seems

Posted in Labour leadership, Politics on January 15th, 2016 by Leo – Comments Off on Why Corbyn’s support may not be as secure as it seems

This was originally published on the New Statesman.

The resignation of four shadow ministers – one of them on live TV – would normally prompt speculation about a leadership challenge.

But Labour’s rules seem to protect Corbyn from attempts to unseat him. Even if MPs were to force another leadership election, it’s assumed that the membership would vote him straight back in, perhaps with an even greater majority. I’m not so sure though.

Those who think Corbyn can count on members’ support point to polls of those eligible to vote in leadership elections, which seem to show deep support for the new leader. The most recent, a Times/YouGov poll in November, found that 66 per cent think he’s doing well, compared with 30 per cent of the general public who said the same.

The explanation for this support among members, it’s argued by those who are baffled about how anyone can say he’s doing well, is that many Labour members prefer their party to be pure than to be in power. The same poll found a 24-point lead for those who prefer Labour to put forward policies they really believe in, even if that means being unelectable.

If that’s true, it may not matter how unpopular Corbyn is with the public. In fact, the worse Labour’s poll score becomes, the more popular he might become with some members who take the opprobrium as evidence that they finally have a ‘real’ Labour leader.

But this wrongly treats Corbyn voters as an undifferentiated block, when the reality is that many aren’t indifferent to his struggles.

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Labour polls three months into Corbyn’s leadership

Posted in Labour leadership, Politics on December 11th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Labour polls three months into Corbyn’s leadership

Tomorrow is three months since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party.

Shortly after he took over I produced a chart showing how Labour’s poll score has changed over the first year of previous leaders (data from Mark Pack’s brilliant collection of all post-war voting-intent polls).

I found broadly three categories: for some leaders (Kinnock, Smith, Blair) the score increased sharply in the first three months, then slowly decreased over the next nine months; for some leaders (Gaitskell, Wilson, Miliband) the score increased a little then stayed flat for the rest of the year; and for a couple of unfortunates (Callaghan, Foot), the score fell in the first three months then continued to fall for the rest of the year (Brown was an exception in that his score rose quickly at first then fell faster over his second three months than any previous leader’s).

I also noted that every Labour leader who started with support below 40% immediately increased it by several points.

I’ve now updated the chart to show the polls three months into Corbyn’s leadership:

First 12 months - Dec '15 read more »

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.

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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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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