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24 August 2016

Could Jeremy Corbyn lose after all?

Saving Labour's numbers are plausible - but they feel unlikely. 

By Stephen Bush

Saving Labour, the anti-Corbyn organisation, has released its analysis of figures showing that, far from the landslide victory for Jeremy Corbyn expected by the bookmakers – and indicated by his dominant showing in constituency nominations and in the only public YouGov poll of the race – they predict a much closer race – one that Smith will edge by 3902 votes.

The numbers are the result of Saving Labour’s analysis of its own mailing list and information about where exactly the £25 supporters and trade union affiliates live and what they do. But are they right?

Well, their estimates for the party membership fit with everything we know thus far.

Saving Labour estimate that Corbyn will defeat Smith among members by 57 to 43 per cent. That’s within the margin of error shown in the only public YouGov poll of the race thus far, which put the two candidates at 56 to 34 per cent, with the remainder undecided.

It also fits the pattern of constituency nominations – yes, Corbyn has taken 84 per cent of those, but when you look at the underlying figures, what you’d expect is a roughly 60-40 vote share. (The excellent Psephography Twitter account, which has also been collating CLP nominations, has produced a similar projection to mine.)  

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That brings us to the known unknowns of the Labour leadership race: affiliated trade unionists and the registered supporters who have paid £25 for a one-off vote in the Labour leadership race.

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The turnout figures for both are a carbon-copy of last year’s, which feels about right, although who knows, perhaps the sense of it being a foregone conclusion might lead to a turnout drop in the manner of Labour’s second successive landslide in 2001.

To overturn that heavy defeat among members, Smith would need big wins among trade unionists and registered supporters, both of which went for Corbyn by large margins last time.

My immediate response to Saving Labour’s figures – which, you guessed it, show him getting exactly those big wins among those sections – was “how very convenient”. But again, the underlying figures are plausible and fit with what we know: that many of last year’s £3 supporters became full members shortly after Corbyn’s victory, and many of the members most opposed to him left in short order. Look at it this way: if last year’s £3ers were drawn from “Old Labour in exile”, it is possible this year’s £25ers are “New Labour in exile”.

As for the trade union figures, Saving Labour believe they have successfully focused on recruiting trade unionists in fields that Corbyn has set himself against – aerospace, defence and pharmaceuticals. And again, this is perfectly plausible. We know, thanks to a series of polls commissioned by Ian Warren, a former Labour staffer, that support for Corbyn has fallen among members of the affiliated unions.

Plausible, but, not, I think, likely. Why not?

Let’s start with those trade unionists. Yes, we know that most members of affiliated trade unions are not that enamoured of Corbyn. But we also know that most members of affiliated trade unions are not that concerned with the Labour party. That’s partly why more than one of Labour’s trade union general secretaries is striking a far more pro-Corbyn tone in public than in private – because while their Corbynscepticism may be closer to that of the millions of union members who don’t vote in internal elections, they need to retain the support of Corbyn-backing activists who do vote.

It feels more likely than not that the tiny minority of trade unionists who choose to vote will be closer to the politically active members of their own trade unionists, particularly as Saving Labour had a relatively small window to recruit trade unionists.  

As for the £25ers, having rung round local parties, my impression is that, on average, a third of them are members who joined after the freeze date, with the rest unknown. It could be, therefore, that these additional sign-ups are “New Labour in exile”.

But again, it doesn’t feel likely. Although the support base for both Corbyn and his opponents, is, on the whole, able to afford to pay £25 for a vote, my feeling is that regardless of how much you earn, £25 still feels like quite a bit of money. Remember that for most of the window, it was unclear which of Angela Eagle or Owen Smith were going to be the candidate to take on the Labour leader – and neither of them were lighting up enough stages to motivate people to shell out to vote for one or both of them.

So while the numbers are certainly believable – I’ll believe it when it happens.