From the archive: How does it end, Jeremy?

Michael Harris /   December 1, 2015 at 8:23 PM 20,143 views


At the weekend, Jeremy Corbyn’s office released a poll appearing to show that 75 per cent of Labour members were against airstrikes in Syria.

This is the first time that I’m aware of Corbyn citing a poll (the rest of this post might explain why). The results may indeed reflect what most Labour party members think, although there’s been some comment on its reliability. According to Labour, there were 107,875 responses, of which 64,771 were from full individual party members – but the ‘75 per cent’ figure seems to have been based only on an initial analysis of 1,900 responses. Reportedly, there was also no way of checking whether those who responded to the survey were in fact party members, or that individuals did not ‘vote’ multiple times.

Rather than rely on possibly dodgy surveys comprised only of (some) party members, Jeremy Corbyn should be looking at real polls of the general public.

Yesterday, new YouGov research suggested that ‘Labour is losing touch with public opinion’. (The lead researcher, Ian Warren, worked in Labour’s HQ during the 2015 general election campaign.) It confirms that under Corbyn, Labour is talking to itself and losing the public:

“Since the election, Labour has attracted voters from two main sources: the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, many of whom hold views on immigration, defence, welfare and patriotism that are at odds with public opinion. At the same time, Labour has retained only two-thirds of its own voters… The voters who have deserted the party since May hold views reflecting public opinion. The result is that the Labour vote is now composed of staunch loyalists and recent converts; a base that holds positions on immigration, defence, welfare and patriotism which render the party unrepresentative and unelectable. …Respondents from all demographic groups are united in their strong disapproval of Corbyn as Labour leader. Regardless of gender, age group, social class, region, education age, ethnicity or residential tenure, he is hugely unpopular in the country.”

Less scientific, but perhaps no less true, are Warren’s gloomy predictions:

“Should Corbyn fall on his sword it is more than likely those voters who have recently attached themselves to the party will drift away again, leaving Labour with the 68% it has retained from May. By that point it will have so alienated itself from public opinion as to be considered unelectable by those voters who would quite like a bit of economic security and competence. The third of voters it has lost may well choose to permanently close the door on any return.”

What about other forms of public opinion research though – do they offer any hope? Here’s Rachel Sylvester in the Times, also writing yesterday:

“It is no coincidence that the leader has – to the fury of his MPs – suppressed the findings of an internal party inquiry into the general election defeat in May. He is not interested in finding out what went wrong because he has no intention of putting it right. I have been shown the findings of focus groups held in ten marginal seats as part of the post mortem and they are devastating. These were made up of swing voters, who had previously supported the Labour party but voted Conservative or (in Scotland) SNP in 2015 – the people Labour needs to win back. These swing voters see the Tories as “a party for me and my family”. Labour, by contrast, “are ‘nice’ but in thrall to the undeserving”. The headline of the analysis reads: “Nowadays, Labour is the party for down and outs, not ‘people like me’.” Many of these swing voters did not want to vote Tory, but they felt they had no choice. One man summed up the mood when he said: “I didn’t vote for what I wanted, I voted against what I didn’t want. It was the lesser of two evils.”

According to Sylvester, Labour’s internal report apparently suggests that the party’s lack of economic competence has become an ‘incontrovertible truth’: “It is seen as “defensive, uninspiring and unimaginative,” the analysis says, concluding: “Labour must re-establish itself as a voice for those in the middle.”

Okay, so let’s say you don’t agree with what you might regard as some of the assumptions behind these polls, for example that people’s minds can’t be changed over time by persuasive arguments about, say, issues like immigration or defence. Take a different approach though: How about where Labour needs to be at this stage in the Parliament in order to stand any chance of winning in 2020?

Unfortunately, the picture here is even worse, as a sobering post on the Public Policy and the Past blog at the start of last month suggests (‘What are the boundaries and limits of Labour’s 2020 performance?’):

“Only where they already led by now have Labour, in modern times, ever emerged from a Parliament to win, and they even managed to lose once out of the three occasions on which they were ahead (in 1979, after which they went on to be buried while led by Michael Foot in 1983). Yes, we’ll let that sink in for a moment. The fact that Labour is behind is already a red signal that they are probably about to lose again.”

“It gets worse. …Only once, in every example we’ve got to look at, have [Labour] moved forward at all from the numbers they were posting six months after a General Election. And that was when they were led by Tony Blair, at the height of his remarkable popularity, and faced by an obviously flagging (and very badly divided) Conservative government that just seemed to be running out of time.”

The author, an academic historian, notes that the average fall from this point to an election four or five years hence is 6.1 per cent. This would put Labour in 2020 right back on about 25.7 per cent or 190 seats on the current House of Commons boundaries, or only 170 out of 600 if the Conservatives’ boundary and voting reforms go through (including every Parliament since 1970 however means an average fall of 8.4 per cent, pushing Labour right down to a 23.4 per cent share of the vote – just 170 seats on the current boundaries or 145 seats on the new lines).

The author also notes, as if we can forget, that the polls overstated Labour’s position in 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2015 (though not in 2010). Labour has been historically overestimated, between final polls and General Election results, by about three per cent. As the author notes: “There are 232 Labour MPs right now. If these numbers are anything like right, somewhere between 42 and 87 of them could be losing their jobs in 2020.”

So, three different pieces of analysis, but the same basic conclusion. Forget ideological differences – if you want to understand why so many Labour MPs feel hopeless under Corbyn, this is why. And who can blame them?

On the eve of the Oldham West by-election, to quote from Samuel Hooper, conservative-libertarian blogger:

“Six months after a general election at a time of Conservative government missteps and scandals, and Labour are struggling to defend a 14,000 seat majority in the safest of safe seats. Those votes are bleeding away in no small part to UKIP, who are convincing many wavering Labour voters that Nigel Farage’s party is now better placed to defend their interests than a Labour Party which has been captured first by substance-free Milibandism and then by Islingtonian, Jeremy Corbyn-style moral hectors.”

I’d put it slightly differently: The tragedy is that, between the Tories, Labour, UKIP and the rest, ordinary working people have no-one who really represents their interests.

So the question I’d ask Corbyn’s supporters is this: Under what realistically conceivable circumstances could a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn win?

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