Last week Stephen Bush wrote on this site that he thinks Jeremy Corbyn will be the next Labour leader. His case is simple; all of the indicators that matter seem to point that way. During the General Election the polls ‘felt’ wrong, he says, but they don’t here. Whether you are looking at CLP nominations or the opinion polls or just talking to Labour members, all the signs point to Jeremy Corbyn emerging victorious in September.
This all makes sense but I am not so sure. There are plenty of reasons to think that either Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper will still actually win. A Corbyn victory is not inevitable. The evidence before us is far murkier than that.
Delving into the data
Let’s start with CLP nominations. At the time of writing Jeremy Corbyn leads with 125, followed by Andy Burnham on 106, Yvette Cooper 95 and Liz Kendall 14. These results neatly support the idea that Corbyn is ahead on first preferences but they also show almost twice as many CLPs nominating someone else. A not insignificant point when we consider the inevitable importance of second preferences in this contest.
CLP nominations are difficult to read. We cannot be sure that those attending CLP meetings are representative of those voting. More importantly, we cannot be sure that those voting Corbyn in CLP meetings will actually do so once their ballot arrives. Conor Pope is excellent on this in his analysis of 2010 here. It is true that David Miliband was ahead on nominations in 2010 and won the membership so perhaps Jeremy Corbyn will too. However, even if nominations do indicate how the membership will vote, Andy Burnham is not far behind and Yvette Cooper is still very much in the game as well.
A similar picture is painted when looking at the opinion polls. YouGov produced a poll recently that showed Corbyn on course to win. He was 17 points ahead of Andy Burnham on first preferences but his lead was reduced to 53 / 47 once candidate preferences were reallocated. These numbers support the CLP story and feed the idea that Corbyn is ahead with Burnham the main challenger.
Given the uncertainty around the significance of CLP nominations, the YouGov poll feels like the main reason many think Corbyn will win. However, we should be careful in reading too much into it. Getting a representative sample of this audience online is very difficult and we cannot be sure what the final composition of the Labour electorate will look like in terms of who will actually vote. More importantly, it is just one poll. It is subject to margin of error and dates like any other. What Labour members think in July may differ to what they think in August and September.
This poll reminds me of the famous YouGov poll that showed ‘Yes’ ahead during the Scottish referendum. That poll caused a furore too only for others (including from YouGov) to quickly show that ‘No’ was still just about in front. In the end ‘No’ won. Of course, this time other polls have not materialised (unless we count some sketchy leaked private ones). If they had it’s worth considering – would some have shown Burnham or Cooper winning on second preferences? It’s possible and if they had then the race would feel very different now.
Even if they hadn’t, there is plenty in the polling we do have to encourage Corbyn’s opponents. It is worth emphasising that his lead dramatically shrinks once candidate preferences are reallocated. This tells us that for Corbyn to win he has to be a long way ahead on first preferences. His opponents will think that they can catch him. Andy Burnham will feel that he can win based on the second preferences of others, provided that he is close enough after the first round. Likewise, Yvette Cooper will think that she can win too, if Liz Kendall supporters – whose second preferences tend to favour her over Burnham – mean that she makes the runoff with Corbyn instead.
All to play for
The point is that the data we have is nowhere near as conclusive as it seems. Jeremy Corbyn looks ahead on first preferences but this could easily be overstated and also misses the point – it is the result in the final round that matters and this is less clear cut. It is still only July and a lot can change before ballots go out. Corbyn could forge further ahead of course but he might also have peaked early. Issues of party unity and winning in 2020 might not have mattered in July but they could well do in August and September. We don’t know. Things can change.
On the other hand, it is possible – as some are suggesting – that the influx of new members and union affiliates has changed the Labour electorate beyond all recognition and that this will prove decisive. Certainly polling evidence suggests that this group prefers Corbyn. However, for now, I am sceptical. There is talk of Unite running phone banks to recruit supporters to vote in this contest but let’s wait and see what this actually produces before we declare the race for Corbyn.
It is clear that Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper need to wrest control of the agenda back from Corbyn if they are to win but it is too early to declare for Corbyn yet. They may not catch him on first preferences but they can on second preferences. I suspect one of them will – most likely Andy Burnham but we cannot rule out Yvette Cooper yet. It is surprising that the idea of Labour’s first female leader has yet to catch on. Maybe it will. However, the most likely to beat Corbyn remains Burnham. If some Corbyn supporters get cold feet, he is likely to benefit most. If he can come second, then the second preferences of Kendall and Cooper supporters could see him home.
So to those ready to announce Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader I say hold on. The race is close and the lure of winning in 2020 may yet prove decisive when it matters. Labour moderates should not despair. The fight for Labour’s soul is not done yet.
Keiran Pedley is an elections and polling expert at GfK and presenter of the ‘Polling Matters’ podcast. He tweets about politics at @keiranpedley