Labour

Why Corbyn was crucial for Labour’s election result

Posted in Labour, Politics on June 25th, 2017 by Leo – 3 Comments

I’ve been on paternity leave since the election so haven’t written much about it. But there are a few things I keep coming back to that I find interesting.

First, why was I surprised? Had I predicted the result on the day of the election, I would have said the Tories would have a majority of 60 seats. My mistake was to think opinion wouldn’t shift much during the campaign. That meant I looked for reasons not to believe polls that showed the gap had narrowed. So I wasn’t open to the possibility that Corbyn really could turn out so many young people or that the Tories could alienate so many older people.

Looking at the results I think those two things happened for a few reasons:

1. The Tories made some crucial (and terrible) decisions. The social care policy was predictably suicidal. The fox-hunting pledge was bizarre. But those seem to me to be the consequence of a small group of advisors being allowed to get individual policies into the manifesto.

The thing that I’m most interested by is the strategic decision not to attack Labour on the economy. In 2015 Labour couldn’t get a hearing because most voters still thought the party had wrecked the economy in 2008. When Ed Miliband said he didn’t think Labour had spent too much he was laughed at. When he forgot to talk about the economy in his leader’s speech he was mocked. I don’t believe that, had they been tried in 2015, Labour’s 2017 spending plans would have overcome this problem. What I think changed is that the Tories stopped putting much effort into claiming to be the only fiscally responsible party. In the past, the Tories have won when they’ve been disliked but considered reliable.

I don’t know why the Tories made this decision. It surely wasn’t an oversight. One possibility is they tested out different attacks in polls and focus groups and found that the public no longer believed the Tories’ economic message (even though they did so in 2015). Or perhaps the Tories genuinely thought they no longer needed to bind themselves to pointless deficit-reduction targets and could win without saying much about Labour’s spending plans. Whatever the rationale, I think this decision was crucial.

2. Despite everything, May – as an individual – attracted a lot more voters than Corbyn did… It runs totally counter to how the two leaders are now seen, but Tory voters were much more likely to say they choose the party because of Theresa May than Labour voters were to say they did so because of Jeremy Corbyn. Only 1 in 3 Labour voters said they choose Labour because they thought Corbyn would be the best Prime Minister, compared with nearly 3 in 4 Tory voters for May.

Even now, after more terrible headlines for May and good coverage for Corbyn, the two are tied (within the margin of error) in polls of who would be the best Prime Minister. There’s a danger of reading passionate support for Corbyn among a relatively small proportion of voters as widespread support for him as an individual.

3. … but Corbyn was essential for Labour’s balancing act (part 1, the EU). Corbyn pushed the government to accelerate its Article 50 timetable and the manifesto embraced Brexit yet Labour did particularly well among Remainers who still want to stop Brexit. Corbyn said immigration should fall yet won the support of young socially liberal voters who like immigration. How?

Partly, this must have been about the Tories’ relentless alienation of anyone who embraces internationalism and diversity – with May’s mantra of brexitmeansbrexit and disdain for citizens of nowhere.

But it must also have been down to Corbyn. Any Labour leader could have adopted the pro-Brexit, anti-free movement policies that Corbyn choose. They had the political advantage of stopping the Tories/Ukip attacking Labour from the right. But if a Liz Kendall or an Yvette Cooper had triangulated in this way, they would have alienated pro-Remain socially liberal voters. It needed Corbyn, who could signal internationalist values in other ways, while adopting EU and immigration policies that did the opposite. This took genuine political skill and was crucial for Labour’s result – I don’t believe another leader could have built the same electoral coalition (although other coalitions are available).

4. … Corbyn and Labour’s balancing act (part 2, the economy). I can see how scrapping tuition fees (which benefits graduates, who tend to be richer) and protecting benefits for all pensioners (many of whom are relatively well off) could be left-wing. Universal public services is clearly a left-wing thing. But I don’t think it’s so clear cut that Labour’s 2017 economic policy overall was all that left-wing – the effect of its tax and benefits policy on poorer people was almost exactly as regressive as the Tories’ plan. Under Labour’s plans, you would benefit more (actually, lose less) the richer you are, up to people who earn more than 90% of the rest of the country. Only the top 10% would lose more than people poorer than them. In this context, Labour’s help to graduates and richer pensioners has to be seen as a choice – the party promised to protect them before it offered to protect much poorer people.

This may have been politically smart. Having made these pledges, it was much harder for the Tories to attack Labour from the right. And who was there to attack them from the left? Since Corbyn was Labour leader: no-one.

Again, I don’t believe another Labour leader could have pulled this off. It had to be Corbyn. Despite these regressive tax and benefit policies, Corbyn was widely perceived to be offering a left-wing manifesto and so locked up the support of kind of people who were furious when Labour, under Harriet Harman, abstained on the Welfare Bill.

Right now the public mood is behind Labour. It’s like the reverse of 2008-10, when everything Brown did was seen in the worst possible light and everything Cameron did was treated generously. If there was an election in the autumn I’m pretty sure Labour would win it. Assuming the next election is actually a few years away, I still think Labour are likely to win (now the mud has stuck to the Tories it will be hard to clean off) but there are a few reasons it could go wrong:

1. The Tories can’t run a worse campaign next time. If it hadn’t been for their huge mistakes this time (point 1 above), the Tories were on course for a comfortable majority. Assuming the Tories have a new leader and better campaign managers, Labour will face a much tougher opponent next time.

2. An effect of that could be increased turnout about older people. While more young people voted this year than 2015, fewer older people voted. Either of these might revert to the mean. An increase in turnout among older people (many of whom were presumably put off voting by the Tories’ policies on social care) would probably help the Tories.

3. The tensions between Labour’s policies and many of its voters’ core beliefs (in points 3 & 4 above) could start to undo the coalition. No-one really attacked Labour from the left during the election and this could be a risk to Labour in the future if the tension isn’t resolved (cf the way Trump used unbranded Facebook ads to suppress turnout for Clinton among young voters).

Corbyn did a remarkable job. The more I think about it, the more impressive his achievement seems. The challenge for Labour now is to win an election – and it’s likely they will have to do so against a tougher opponent, who will – unlike May – take Labour seriously and will put more effort into understanding and attacking the party’s weaknesses.

Are radical policies the answer to Labour’s slump?

Posted in Labour, Politics, Polling Matters on April 24th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Are radical policies the answer to Labour’s slump?

This was originally published on Political Betting.

Despite using Easter to announce several policies, Labour is making little effort to pretend it knows what it would do with power. The party’s website still invites visitors to “help shape our next manifesto” and Corbyn semi-loyalist Dawn Butler suggested on Newsnight there might have to be a “rolling manifesto” while policies are developed.

This isn’t just a lack of detailed policies. It’s also about what Labour stands for and who it is trying to appeal to.

Corbyn ran for the leadership with the promise of a “radical economic strategy” yet the recent announcements have largely been repeats of earlier Labour policies. Free meals in primary schools was floated for the 2010 election. A plan to pressure big companies to pay suppliers on time was in the 2015 manifesto. The triple lock on pensions was another Miliband pledge.

You could argue that Labour’s recent policies go further than previous ones. But no-one can seriously claim they would revolutionise the economy. As such, they seem designed for the same voters – progressive but not radical – that the 2015 manifesto aimed to win over.

Yet Corbyn’s Labour has also made some radical pledges that wouldn’t have made it into recent manifestos. Among its current 10 pledges are rent controls and nationalisation of the railways.

This week’s Opinium poll for the PB/Polling Matters podcast tested public views of eight possible and actual Labour policies.

The policies that did best were a mix of the radical and the incremental. Two of the top-scoring were 2015-style measures: a £10 minimum wage in 2020 (more radical than Miliband, but hardly socialist) and requiring companies to pay suppliers on time.

Also among the top-scoring was “control rents so landlords cannot keep increasing the amount they charge”, which 47% of those considering Labour strongly supported. Surprisingly, that measure was most popular among the 55+ age group, and least popular among the ‘generation rent’ 18-34s.

Other radical policies were much less popular though. A citizens’ income of £6000 and railway nationalisation were strongly supported by only 29% and 32%, respectively, of people who would consider Labour.

So Labour might find support for a mix of tangible incremental policies, and radical policies aimed at tackling a well-known problem. With 49% saying they would at least consider Labour, these policies appear to win the strong support of around a quarter of the population – suggesting there is still a 25% strategy open to Labour.

But while this might suggest Labour could avoid slipping further, there are two problems with this approach.

First, such an incoherent mix of policies would leave voters struggling to know what Labour stands for. One set of policies suggests Labour would govern as social democrats. The second set suggests Labour wants to revolutionise major parts of the economy.

Without a unifying argument, Labour’s pledges would be easily forgotten. Ed Miliband didn’t lack popular policies but the failure to stake out a clear position, and stick to it, cost the party at the election.

Second, the poll also suggests even well-scoring policies may be less popular than they seem. Over Easter, Labour’s policy that got the most coverage was the pledge for free school meals. Yet this was the least popular of the policies tested.

It’s hard to be sure why it did so badly, but free food for children doesn’t seem an inherently unpopular measure. Its failure in the poll might be because it is now associated with Labour. If that’s the case, more policy announcements might do little to stop Labour’s vote sliding further, even if they were popular before they become linked with the party.

Listen to the latest episode of Polling Matters, where I talked about the state of the parties and the race ahead with Conor Pope of Progress and Laurence Janta-Lipinski, a political consultant: