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:

First, write the best one-sentence description of the candidate’s pitch that you can come up with: essentially, what you think the candidate’s best brain would write. Show that to the respondents. Then, write the best attack line on that pitch. What would the Tories say about them? Show that to the respondents. And finally, write the best rebuttal of the attack and show that.

Then test how likely respondents would be to vote for the candidate. You could do it after each of the three lines, but if you’re pushed for space it would be ok to do it just at the end of each candidate’s set of messages.

You do this for all four candidates, randomly rotating the order across the respondents.

At the end, ask respondents again who they’d vote for. How’s it changed compared with the response you got after the videos? Who would lose support as voters got to know what they stand for and who would gain it?

This is known as combat testing and is surprisingly good fun. It’s also the best way I know to poll a candidate’s or brand’s strengths and vulnerabilities (with more money you’d test a much larger array of messages and use focus groups and other qualitative testing to really understand the issues).

There’s a debate to be had about the order of the video test and the messages: whichever comes first will influence the responses of the other. I’d be inclined to go with the order I’ve suggested here as it’s closer to the real world – people will see or hear the new leader and make a gut judgement about them before they engage with the content of their arguments.

You’d need to get demographics, particularly how respondents voted in 2015 (and, though recall is problematic, 2010). Which candidate stacks up votes among people who live in places Labour’s already winning, which gives Labour a chance of winning in marginal constituencies? You could also use a cross-party voting intent question to see how the candidates fare against the other parties: does Corybn do well among Green/SNP voters but still not win them over to voting Labour; is Kendall in the same position with regards the Tories?

I would be fascinated by the results of this (I am deeply uncool). I doubt it would change the minds of many Labour members: the compelling evidence that Labour lost because it wasn’t trusted on the economy, despite having individually popular policies, seems not to have influenced a large proportion of the membership. Yet it’s striking that some Corbyn supporters are arguing, not just that his policies are right, but that he can enthuse more voters than any of the more centrist candidates. This poll could reinforce or undermine that.

Mostly, though, I suspect the poll could be of enormous use to the Kendall or Cooper camps. Both candidates are beginning to suffer from trailing in polls that reward name recognition. A poll like this might (I genuinely don’t know) show that their candidate is the woman to win over the public and make Labour electable. If I were them I’d commission it and see what happens.

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