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19 August 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 1:29pm

Just how electable is Jeremy Corbyn, really?

By Leo Barasi

Whenever I see a picture of Jeremy Corbyn, I find myself smiling. He’s obviously a decent man, hard-working, straight-talking and different from most leading politicians. It’s easy to see why he’s unleashed such enthusiasm, with overflowing rallies and polls suggesting he could win the leadership ballot without even needing second preferences.

But, how representative of the general public are the people who are enthused by Corbyn? Because if they’re unusual in their reaction to the Islington North MP, the fact that he’s likely to win an election of Labour’s supporters wouldn’t tell us much about how he would do in a general election. Indeed, one of the chief criticisms of Corbyn is that the public would find him unelectable.

If Labour under Corbyn would be unelectable it couldn’t do the kind of things the last Labour government did, like introducing the minimum wage, creating the Department for International Development, massively investing in the NHS, introducing devolution to Wales and Scotland, establishing Civil Partnerships and passing the Climate Change Act.

You might notice that the Tories now support all those things. That’s because the other great advantage of being in power is that you set the boundaries of debate, making changes that the next government can’t easily undo. Labour’s period in power made it impossible for the Tories to explicitly oppose the minimum wage, foreign aid, equal love, tackling climate change, and so on.

On the flip side, if Corbyn would make Labour unelectable, the Tories would not only be able to do all the things they can while in power, but also to shift the debate further to the right. This is what Osborne has done with the benefits cap: from being unthinkable a few years ago, it is now widely accepted in policy debates.

So, an unelectable Labour leader would mean Labour couldn’t do the kind of things it does when in power, while the Tories would be free to do the things they want to do and to push the debate further to the right. This suggests that it would be significant if some candidates have a reasonable chance of forming a Labour government, while others have little chance. With this in mind, how confident can we be that Corbyn would make it much harder for Labour to form a government?

The case for it seems strong.

Firstly, it’s much easier for Labour to form a government if it wins votes from the Tories than from other parties. The new leader has to gain 100 seats relative to the Tories, even before boundary changes (which would make victory even harder). There are far too few Green voters available for this to be possible with just them. Even with some votes back from the SNP, gains purely from the left wouldn’t be enough. Ukip voters and non-voters can’t easily be combined with Green and SNP voters either as they generally have quite different views from their more liberal counterparts. On the other hand, Labour would gain 112 seats relative to the Tories with a swing of less than 6pts: a challenge, but not an unprecedented one.

The second problem is that the main reasons people didn’t vote Labour in May look hard to resolve with a more left-wing leader. The top two reasons people gave for voting Tory both related to the perception that the economy was being fixed, while the top reason for not voting Labour was the view the party couldn’t be trusted on the economy. People thought Labour meant well – they just didn’t think it could deliver on its promises. For Labour to win in 2020, it needs either to regain trust on the economy to stop the economy being voters’ top concern.

A common objection to people arguing that Labour should improve its economic credibility is the question, why would people vote for Tory-lite Labour when they can vote for the real thing? But this misrepresents the appeal of parties being seen as economically credible. Just like you wouldn’t choose a cafe only because it has a 5-star hygiene rating, most people don’t vote for parties just because they trust them to manage the economy. Yet, they’re repelled from parties they can’t trust on the economy. Many people naturally prefer Labour to the Tories but won’t vote for the former until they’re confident Labour can manage the economy. Once Labour has regained this trust, it can talk about the things that make it different from the Tories. This isn’t about turning Labour into Tory-lite, it’s about turning the Tories into Toxic Labour.

But how about the evidence that Corbyn wouldn’t be such a disaster for Labour?

It’s fair to be sceptical of opinion polls after their epic fail in May – but we shouldn’t let scepticism turn into denial. They were wrong at the election in the crucial gap between Labour and the Tories, though only by a couple of points each way. Those few points mattered enormously for predicting the election so we were right to be angry about the polls. But even if the recent polls about the reasons for Labour’s defeat are wrong by twice as much as the election polls were, they would still point to the same conclusion that Labour’s lack of economic credibility cost the election.

Equally, some polls show Corbyn is reasonably popular as a potential Labour leader and prime minister. But these polls are pretty much meaningless as guides to future opinion. Currently, most people have very little idea who the candidates are. Their views will change once they get to know the candidates, particularly when they hear the attacks fired at them by the Tories and the right-wing media.

So far, the Mail, Sun and Telegraph (and others) have been remarkably quiet about Corbyn. That will change dramatically if he’s elected. Expect the public to be carpet-bombed with depictions of Corbyn as an old-style socialist, who wants to raise your taxes, open the floodgates to immigrants and destroy the economy. Just as with Miliband – painted as a weird lefty who knifed his own brother – these impressions of Corbyn would be widely heard and effective. Opinion of him would almost certainly worsen among people who already doubt Labour on the economy.

The final argument that Corbyn could still lead Labour into government is the hardest to refute: events. The Tories could implode over the EU referendum, leaving an open goal. The economy could fall off a cliff, creating conditions like those that took Syriza to power. The public could change their mind about deficit-reducing economics, and embrace a higher tax-and-spend alternative. All of these are possible, yet none seem likely.

So those now considering putting Corbyn at the top of their ballot have a calculation to make. Presumably they prefer his policies and values to those of his rivals. But presumably they also prefer Labour governments to Tory governments (if not, they shouldn’t be voting in a Labour election). The choice is between, on the one hand, a Corbyn-led Labour Party that has only a very slim chance of stopping the Tories extending their run of power to 15 years and pushing the agenda further to the right, and on the other hand, a party led by any of the other candidates, which is much more likely to restrain the Tories’ extremes and has a decent chance of being in power in 2020 to follow up on the things the last Labour government got right.

Leo Barasi writes about public opinion at Noise of the Crowd

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