What do the voters make of Jeremy Corbyn so far?

A handful of polls and early by-elections give us an idea of who Corbyn's leadership will - and won't - appeal to. 

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Corbyn's foreign and domestic policies will probably take a while to assemble, and his leadership is still just days old. But we already have some polling, and actual electoral, data that we can use to test and explore our assumptions about Corbyn's likely popularity. So how is he doing so far?


The first thing to say is that there has not been much of an overall "Corbyn bounce". That may not be surprising, given his absolutely torrid first week in charge, during which his project looked on several occasions like blowing up before it had even begun. But it is of note. There's a teeny, tiny bit of a lift discernable in the four national polls and one marginal survey we've seen. But it's well within the margin of error, and therefore it might not be there at all. ComRes showed a 0.5 per cent swing to the Conservatives from their last poll; YouGov, a 1.5 per cent move to Labour; ICM, the same; and Opinium, a 0.5 per cent swing to Labour since the General Election. An ICM marginals poll, taken in Conservative seats with slender majorities, showed a 2 per cent swing to Labour.

 

All that leaves Labour a long way back - eight points behind the Conservatives, in contrast to the one point lead they had over the Tories the day after Ed Miliband was elected leader in 2010. This should worry you a great deal if you are cheering Corbyn on to ever-greater heights. Every Labour leader in the past fifty years has got a polling 'bounce' on taking up the reins - except Jim Callaghan, and look what happened to him. On the opposite side, even Michael Howard gave his party a boost when he first became leader. Now? Almost nothing. So our first presumption - that there would be something of an early Labour bounce - seems to have gone awry.


Overall, however, we have quite a lot of evidence that the policies Corbyn is most associated with are often very, very unpopular. Rail and energy nationalisation are popular, as are rent caps and more taxation on the rich. Fair enough - those causes have for many years been seen as pretty good ideas by a majority of the public. But the numbers on national security - Trident, the military, patriotism - and on the economy are dire. A majority in the ComRes data actually think Labour's leader is a positive danger to national security. The overall picture, away from specific policies, is just awful. A majority of voters trust Corbyn only on the NHS, and that by a mere seven points: far worse figures than Miliband's even at his nadir. He is underwater on the economy by 17 points, even at the start of his leadership. Leftists are enthused,something that may well help Labour survive in an era of local campaigning and Individual Voter Registration. But worried centrists and swing voters are alienated. The really worrying thing about this is how Ukip voters have responded. ORB data which only covers what voters are thinking of doing, or might dohas to be treated with caution. But it's revealing. 20 per cent of past Ukip voters are now more likely to vote Labour; but 42 per cent are now more likely to vote Conservative.  I thought Ukip might be a source for Corbyn to find some of the new votes Labour desperately needs. So far, the signs aren’t good.


Corbyn starts off on YouGov data with a negative rating of -18: 38 percentage points below where Miliband began as leader (that -18 per cent figure is backed up by the ComRes numbers reweighted for those actually likely to vote). Those numbers alone ought to frighten Labour headquarters out of its wits, for personal ratings are more likely to fall than rise in the medium term. His numbers are somewhat above the truly abysmal that Mr Miliband's plumbed: the fear, given how far ahead of Corbyn the latter started, is that similar numbers are not far away.


And what about attracting actual votes from among those who voted for other parties in 2015? Well, here there's some solid votes in ballot boxes to go on. Last week there were two council by-elections in Haringey, one in Ayr, one in rural North Yorkshire, and one in Cambridgeshire. Labour seems to have attracted votes from the Greens to increase their large majorities in the first two contests, remained in third place in Ayr East, and got nowhere in Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire. The move from the Greens, combined with numbers buried on page three of the ORB report showing 'others' (often Greens) shifting over to them, seems concrete and well-evidenced. But Labour stood still in Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire - while the Liberal Democrats pushed onwards with their local revival - and went backwards in Ayr. Labour's votes may be collecting exactly where the party doesn't need them: in liberal, multi-ethnic areas of big cities, where they're already well ahead. That bodes ill for them.


However, that Scotland result is interesting. That was about a seven point swing since the last time the seat was contested, a similar move from an Edinburgh (Leith) by-election the week before. Pretty bad. But nowhere near as bad as Labour's polling leading up to Corbyn's election (opens as PDF), which implied a 14-15 per cent swing to the SNP since the Scottish local elections held in 2012. This, taken with the Scottish subsample in the YouGov figures – 46 per cent to 28 per cent for the SNP - might imply something of a (very limited) recovery by Scottish Labour. The two figures for swing that we can derive from those two sources aren't that far apart that they're incompatible. The problem with a post-2012 swing on that scale? It only means that Labour will be buried by an SNP landslide next May, on similar lines to 2011, rather than utterly, utterly wiped off the face of the planet. Scottish Labour's terrified of coming third next year, behind the Conservatives - in our view rightly. These first three data points - just two, perhaps unrepresentative by-elections and a tiny unweighted chunk of a UK poll - only hint at something less than oblivion. And in a Westminster contest, such a small swing back to Labour might give them back just three or four seats. Nowhere near enough to make a real difference. We doubt any of this 'hopeful' news comes as much of a consolation for them.


To sum up: no polling bounce; personal and ideological unpopularity; votes piled up or won back where Labour can't really use them. Not a great overall picture, so far. Diving deeper, there are some crumbs of comfort in Scotland, which may help Labour avoid humiliation in next year's Holyrood election, but probably wouldn't in a general, UK-wide contest. There are definitely signs of Green voters coming over to Labour - though that won't help the party win many seats. And my theory about Ukip voters - that they might be brought back by an apparently old-fashioned, full-blooded, nostalgic socialist ticket - looks thinner by the day. One thought in parentheses is this: perhaps voters are rather more ideologically- and policy-driven than we thought. Certainly Corbyn's leftward shift seems, initially, to be attracting back some SNP defectors, and alienating English Ukip supporters. Still, it's very, very early days. We need to know more. Much more. We need properly-weighted and balanced national polls from Wales and Scotland. We need qualitative and quantitative numbers on Ukip voters. We could do with lots more by-elections to confirm what we think we've seen already. But the first straws in the wind are deeply suggestive.


The real danger here is that Labour is going to be misled by what happens in next May's elections. If they attract a great deal of Green support (and second preferences), as well as left-leaning ex-Liberal Democrats, they may win the Bristol and London Mayoralties. If they can at least staunch the political bleeding in Scotland, they may avoid a total wipeout at the hands of the SNP; there is very little chance of them losing actual power in Wales, even if they do badly, because Plaid Cymru remains too weak to mount a sustained challenge, and there are no alternative coalitions available to replace Labour altogether. The English local election results, which are likely to be pretty grim, may get lost under a tide of relief at winning back City Hall, and dodging total extinction at Holyrood.


But if the current pattern of votes gained and lost hold continues, the picture will be disastrous for Labour. Green defections, and modest gains from the SNP, are not enough for Labour to hold the line and remain standing even where it landed in 2015. As it stands, the picture for 2020 looks bleak. 

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2011). He is currently working on A History of Water in Modern Britain (forthcoming, 2016). He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past