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Think Jeremy Corbyn is untouchable among Labour activists? Think again

People are treating Jeremy Corbyn's supporters as a homogenous bloc, says Leo Barasi.

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.

During the leadership campaign, Corbyn’s supporters often argued not only that he would be authentic, but that he would be effective. They claimed that he would be a formidable opponent to the Tories and that he could win the next election.

Such views might spell trouble for the Labour leader. If Corbyn and his team are seen to be bad at doing politics, they let down those who counted on him to be effective as well as authentic.

It’s true that most of those who voted for Corbyn seem more concerned about having a leader they always agree with than one who can take Labour into government. But what may be crucial for a future leadership election is that this isn’t the case of everyone who voted Corbyn.

According to that poll of members, 71 per cent of Corbyn backers would prefer a pure, unelectable party to one that can win. But a quarter think otherwise. If those members went to another candidate, and the rest remained unchanged, Corbyn would no longer have a majority.

To be clear, I don’t think we’re at the point where Corbyn would lose a ballot of members, even if he were to face only one candidate who united the soft left and right of the party. Indeed, a challenge now might be disastrous for his opponents, as many members who are beginning to waver would feel he deserves more time. The latest poll also suggests that some members who didn’t vote for him currently think Corbyn’s doing well.

My point is that, over the coming months, being seen to be both an ineffective opponent of the Tories and unpopular with the public may well be enough for a substantial part of Corbyn’s leadership supporters to lose faith.

Despite unforced errors for which there’s no-one to blame but Corbyn and his team – not singing the national anthem and then not quickly explaining why; the U-turn on the fiscal charter; McDonnell’s Little Red Book moment – most members are still satisfied with the leadership (although the poll was conducted before the more recent mistakes).

But it’s hard to see things getting easier for Corbyn. The chaos of this week’s reshuffle suggests his team still haven’t got a grip. Labour’s current poll rating is the lowest after the first three months of any post-war leader, while support for Labour oppositions tends to fall between this stage in a parliament and the subsequent election.

If these mistakes continue and Labour’s poll rating doesn’t improve, to the point where it becomes unavoidable that the voters aren’t going to elect a Corbyn-led Labour party, some of those who backed Corbyn might begin to consider alternatives. Despite the size of Corbyn’s victory, it wouldn’t take that many switchers for a rival candidate to be viable. If this happens, the next mass resignation really might be the start of a leadership contest.



Leo Barasi writes about public opinion at Noise of the Crowd


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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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