Jez we can or no we can’t? Can Labour’s new leader succeed?

A week after Jeremy Corbyn’s emphatic victory in Labour’s 2015 leadership competition, Professor Charles Pattie considers the prospects for the new leader and his party.

On September 12 2015, the British Labour party elected Jeremy Corbyn MP as its new leader. He won with the support of 59.5% of the selectorate (party members, trade union affiliates, MPs and MEPs), well ahead of his nearest rival Andy Burnham MP, who won only 19% of the vote. Given that Mr Corbyn had a far lower profile than at least two of his rivals (Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper MP), that he only entered the race at the last possible moment, gaining the support of the bare minimum of Labour MPs necessary to stand, and that he was not a popular choice among his parliamentary colleagues (even among those few who nominated him, several were not supporters but only signed his nomination papers in order to ensure a wide-ranging debate during the leadership election), this was a quite remarkable result.

Mr Corbyn clearly enjoys a remarkable mandate from Labour party members (though not from Labour MPs). But can he repeat this success with the wider electorate? That is a much harder task, and the omens are not good for him or for his party.

To see why, it is worth remembering the context within which the leadership election was fought. The contest was triggered immediately after Labour’s defeat in the May 2015 UK General Election, when the then leader, Ed Miliband MP, stood down. The party was dazed and demoralised by its defeat. Its vote share had barely improved on its dire 2010 performance and it was still 6.5 percentage points behind the Conservatives (who were able to form a majority government for the first time since 1992); there were 26 fewer Labour MPs after the election than there had been before; and the party had been routed in its former Scottish strongholds by an insurgent SNP. Labour desperately needed to renew itself and to reconnect with voters.

To take his party back into power, therefore, Mr Corbyn has to convince many more voters to support it in 2020 than did so in 2015. But can he do this? Maybe. But don’t bet on it, as there are some major obstacles in his way.

Moving left?

First, he is very much on the left of the Labour party, and has promoted another prominent left-winger, John McDonnell, to the all-important post of Shadow Chancellor. There is little doubt that this will move Labour’s ideological and policy centre of gravity significantly to the left. For many of those who voted for Mr Corbyn in the leadership battle, that is exactly the outcome they want to see. Unfortunately, it is a move which is more likely to lose voters than to win more over.

To see why, consider the following evidence from the well-regarded British Election Study (BES) survey. In the post-election wave of its internet panel survey, conducted in the days immediately after the May election, it asked respondents to place themselves, and each of the parties, on an 11-point ideological scale, where 0 indicated the most left-wing position possible and 10 the most right-wing position. The graph below shows where voters placed themselves on the scale in black, where they placed Labour in red, and where they placed the Conservatives in blue. The distribution of voters more or less follows a bell-shaped curve, with only a few individuals placing themselves at the ideological extremes, and the largest numbers placing themselves in the ideological centre ground: the median voter scored 5 on the scale, exactly in the middle. Most voters saw Labour as being left of centre (the party’s median score was 3.0) and the Conservatives as right of centre (with a median score of 8.0).

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Not surprisingly, voters tend to vote for the party which they perceive as ideologically closest to them. In 2015, the average Labour voter scored herself at 3.43 on the left-right scale, slightly to the left of where she placed Labour (at 3.50) and well to the left of where she placed the Conservatives (at 8.15). The average Conservative voter, meanwhile placed herself at 6.99 on the scale, the Conservatives at 7.64 (slightly to her right), and Labour at 2.26 (well to the left).

The implication is clear. If (as is likely under its new leader and Shadow Chancellor) Labour moves further to the left, it is moving away from most voters. Precisely when it needs to be reaching out and extending its appeal, it would be narrowing its base even further.

Two objections might be applied here. First, the BES is a survey, and we all know surveys got it rather badly wrong in 2015. So how can we rely on the data here? Maybe there is a larger left-wing contingent out there in the electorate, just waiting to be mobilised? Maybe. But the chances are exceptionally slim. The polls did get the 2015 election wrong. But they did so by underestimating the Conservative vote, not by underestimating the left: if anything, there may be even fewer voters to the left of the spectrum than the BES data suggests!

Second, even if the left-right distribution of opinion shown here is correct (and it stands up pretty well to a whole variety of different ways of measuring who is more left wing and who more right wing), surely the parties can persuade people and change minds? By setting out clear and compelling arguments, goes this claim, they can shape opinion rather than just being led by it. Perhaps. But the chances are not high. The basic bell-shaped curve of voter opinion on the left-right scale has been fairly fixed in UK politics for many years. It does not change much over time. What is more, the track record of parties which aim for left- or right-wing purity is poor in British elections. When Labour tracked to the left in the 1980s, it lost badly. When the Conservatives tracked to the right in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they lost badly. (And, just for the record, the Thatcher government, at its most successful, was actually much more pragmatic than either its opponents or its supporters think: it was when Mrs Thatcher began to take her own rhetoric seriously and tracked to the right that her support collapsed.) Moving to the left and taking a stand on the ‘issues’ might win over some hearts and minds. But the historical record suggests it is not a strategy likely to succeed.

Much more likely, tracking to the left will result in Labour speaking to a highly committed minority of true believers while leaving the majority of the electorate cold (and available for other, more pragmatic, parties to appeal to). That is not a strategy for electoral success. Labour lost the 2015 election on a more left-wing platform than any the party had put forward in over twenty years. Moving even further to the left seems, in the circumstances, quixotic, to put it mildly.

Enfranchising the disenfranchised?

Another argument which has been advanced in some quarters is that, by breaking out of the mould of ‘politics as usual’, a Corbyn-led Labour party stands to benefit by re-engaging citizens who had given up on mainstream politics. Certainly, there is a significant anti-politics mood in the country, which has been building for many years. Politicians are not trusted, turnout in election (despite small recoveries in recent elections) remains well down on post-war levels, a large body of people are not even registered to vote, support for the mainstream parties is low, and ‘insurgent’ parties like the SNP and UKIP are benefitting. By speaking for this disenfranchised and marginalised group, could a Corbyn-led Labour party stand to benefit too? After all, the Corbyn campaign brought many new members into the Labour party in short order. If that could be rolled out across the public at large….

In reality, however, this might amount to simple wishful thinking. Labour’s membership, by some estimates, has grown by just over 150,000 since the General Election, to around 350,000 members (excluding trade union members and ‘registered supporters’). And a large number, maybe even a majority (though probably not all) of these new members are enthusiasts for the Corbyn cause. But this is a drop in the ocean compared to the gap in votes between Labour and the Conservatives at the 2015 election: with 9.3 million votes, Labour was 2 million votes adrift of the Conservatives.

Maybe there will be a surge in Labour support from those who currently do not vote. After all, 15.7 million registered voters did not take part in the 2015 election. If a significant group of them could be persuaded to back Corbyn and Labour, then job done, surely?

But again, how likely is this? As the next graph shows, abstention is currently general highest in seats Labour already holds. Put crudely, the disenfranchised disproportionately live in the wrong places to give Labour much electoral help. If the party were to succeed in winning over more support from those who currently do not vote, it is most likely to do so in seats it will win anyway, and that will not help the party advance towards government.

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But in any case, there is a sloppy logic at work in the ‘enfranchise the disenfranchised’ argument. Even assuming that a significant number of current non-voters could somehow be re-enthused enough by politics to become voters (and that is a very big ask indeed), there is no guarantee that they will tend to favour Labour. Many might well turn to other parties, including parties of the centre and right. For instance, a large part of UKIP’s appeal (and of its vote) in 2015 was its claim to speak for disenchanted, disenfranchised voters. There is every likelihood that UKIP (and others) will continue to talk to this section of the electorate.

It’s the economy, stupid.

Most elections are won or lost not on ideological grounds but on what political scientists term ‘valence’ issues. Valence issues are those where most people agree on the basic outcome: (almost) all of us want to be more prosperous, want to be safe from crime, and so on. And valence voters decide on results: performance matters. A really important part of this is a party’s reputation for economic competence. No matter how attractive a party’s policies might be, if voters do not trust that party to manage the proverbial whelk stall, let alone the national economy, it is not going to win election.

This matters, as voter judgements of Labour’s economic competence (fuelled by the 2008 banking crisis, the resulting deficit, and the Conservatives’ successful strategy of pinning the blame – whether fairly or unfairly – on Labour profligacy when in power) were a major factor in the party’s defeats in both 2010 and 2015.

Data from the post-election wave of the 2015 BES internet panel once again shows the depths of Labour’s problems. While no party was much trusted by voters to handle the major issues of the day, Labour was trusted rather less than the Conservatives. Only 20% of BES respondents felt Labour was the party best able to handle the issue they thought most important in the election: 29% named the Conservatives. In particular, Labour was no longer trusted on the economy and was widely blamed for the economic problems which followed in the train of the 2008 banking crisis. When asked just a month before the 2015 election whether they thought the economy would have performed better under a Labour government than under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, 50% of BES internet panel respondents said they thought Labour would have made things worse, while only 24% thought the party would have handled things better. This was disastrous for Labour, as votes largely followed this evaluation: The Conservatives picked up 62% of the vote among those who thought Labour would do worse on the economy, while Labour picked up 75% of the vote among those who thought it would do better – but as there were twice as many people who thought the party would make a worse fist of the economy than the Con-LD coalition than thought it would do better, it lost the battle.

Unless it addresses this concern over its economic competence, Labour is almost certainly consigned to opposition for the foreseeable future. But will a Corbyn-led party be able to reassure voters on this? The chances look bleak. Appointing John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor is a clear signal that the party will move left in its economic policies. While that might encourage those already in agreement with this policy direction, it is very unlikely to appeal to all-important swing voters who were already sceptical about Labour’s economic record. Early polling shows the extent of that voter scepticism. A YouGov poll carried out for the Times on 15-16 September (in the aftermath of the Corbyn victory and his appointment of McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor) asked whether people would trust Mr Corbyn to take the right decisions on a number of key issues. On government spending and cuts, only 28% trusted him to make the right decision, whereas 47% did not trust him. On managing the economy generally, the deficit was even wider: 23% trusted him while 50% did not. Only among those who were already Labour voters did more trust than distrust him on his economic competence.

Nor, for the record, were things much better on many other key policy areas. On defence, 54% of YouGov’s sample did not trust him, while only 20% did. On the EU, it was 47% to 24%; on taxes, 47% to 27%, on immigration, 48% to 24% and on terrorism 49% to 22%. Only on the NHS (a long-term strong issue for Labour) did his numbers improve, but even there, he would have hoped to do better: while 40% trusted him on the NHS, 34% did not (and 27% reserved their judgement).

For a party hoping to return to office, these numbers are not promising, to say the least. A party which cannot reassure sufficient voters that it will not mess up in office, and that leaves voters worried that their lives will become harder, not better on that party’s watch is very unlikely to win over enough votes to win an election. And, on current performance, Labour under Mr Corbyn’s leadership is not even remotely offering that reassurance.

Follow the leader?

But maybe Mr Corbyn will win out because of his evident sincerity and conviction? In an era of spun politics, of carefully crafted sound bites, of political triangulation, and so on, goes this argument, voters are tired of inauthentic, insincere politicians. Part of Corbyn’s appeal is that he is very clear and consistent in his own views, and is patently unspun. Won’t this appeal to the public’s jaded political palate?

Maybe. But again, don’t bet on it. Mr Corbyn’s sincerity comes at a steep price.

Prior to the leadership competition, he was probably best known not just for the consistency of his views, but also for his remarkable record as by far the most rebellious Labour backbencher, voting against his party on 533 occasions between 1997 and 2010 (his new Shadow Chancellor was the second most rebellious Labour MP). And despite being an MP since 1983, he had never, prior to becoming party leader. held even a junior ministerial position in government or opposition: he is the first Labour leader in this position since the party’s founder Keir Hardie.

Neither is likely to play well for him. He is not widely supported by other Labour MPs (possibly the only group in the leadership election among whom he failed to get many votes). There are already grumblings among his parliamentary colleagues, and early signs (the botched Shadow Cabinet reshuffle, a lack of clarity on party policy on key issues like EU membership, and so on) of inexperience, naivety and unpreparedness in the Corbyn camp. That all feeds concerns over competence which, as we have seen, is a key issue for many voters.

He is at very serious risk of Labour MPs publicly disagreeing with his policies. And, as a serial rebel himself, his moral authority to demand that those who disagree with him should put up or shut up is seriously compromised: why, many MPs might ask, should they show him more loyalty than he showed his own party when he was a backbencher? Do not underestimate the resentment likely to be felt by those who took difficult decisions, sometimes at odds with their own beliefs and at some cost to themselves, for the greater good of the party for an individual who, in their eyes, ducked responsibility. It is easy, after all, to appear as a sea-green incorruptible if one never has to make a hard decision; much harder to do so when one is involved in the inevitable moral conundrums of real government.

But one great truth of British politics is that parties which are perceived to be internally split and at war with themselves rarely do well in elections. The Corbyn leadership risks just such perceptions of splits at the top of the party. That is not a good look.

Character and perceptions of leadership potential do matter. Jeremy Corbyn may be a personally very nice man and he may be very sincere in his views. But is he tough enough, and capable enough to lead the country? That is quite a different issue, and unless he can reassure voters on that, his chances of leading Labour to electoral victory are remote in the extreme. Sadly for Mr Corbyn, early signs are not good. Another YouGov poll, conducted on 17-18 September 2015 for the Sunday Times, shows the problem. Asked if they thought Mr Corbyn was strong enough to be a good leader, 41% of respondents said he was not strong enough, while only 30% thought he was (and 30% were undecided). To put this into perspective, when YouGov asked a similar question about Ed Miliband in 2010, shortly after he had become Labour’s leader, 31% thought he was not strong enough to lead, and 31% thought he was (while 38% were as yet undecided). As Ed Milband’s leadership shows, early impressions are very quickly set and are then very hard to shift. And perceptions of Jeremy Corby are rather worse than those of Ed Miliband at a similar early stage of his leadership. This does not augur well.

The upshot is that few voters can at present see Corbyn as a future Prime Minister. The Sunday Times YouGov poll again tells a rather depressing story for a Corbyn-led Labour party. Only 17% of respondents thought it even fairly likely that Mr Corbyn would ever become Prime Minister, and 69% thought it unlikely (and, worse, only 13% had yet to make up their minds). Even among Labour supporters, more thought it unlikely he would ever be PM than thought it likely (41% to 37%). What is more, there are clear signs he is already costing his party support. While 16% in the same YouGov/Sunday Times survey say that they are more likely to vote Labour as a result of Corbyn becoming leader, 22% say they are actually less likely to do so (as do 19% of those who voted Labour in 2015).

Politics is a confidence game. And there are few signs of widespread confidence among voters in a Corbyn-led Labour party’s electoral chances. This is not to say, of course, that he has no chance at all. Much can change. But it is not an auspicious start. By reverting deep into their political comfort zone in electing Mr Corbyn as leader, Labour party members have taken a huge gamble with their party’s chances of winning the next election, and it is a gamble which is not very likely to pay off. Jo Grimond, the Liberal party’s inspirational leader in the early 1960s, talked then of his intention to lead his party, like a general ‘towards the sound of gunfire’ (i.e. into the thick of political battle). The risk for Labour is that a Corbyn leadership will actually take the party in quite the opposite direction, to the margins of the battlefield, perhaps even back to the safety and comfort of the barracks (where no battle was ever won), and to the margins of political life.

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