Our recent survey for Business Insider UK has caused a stir. As part of a wider political study showing the Conservatives 20 points ahead of Labour, we asked respondents to imagine different hypothetical leaders of the Labour Party and state whether they would consider voting Labour under their leadership or not. The results may surprise you. Jeremy Corbyn essentially vies for first place on ‘net consideration’ with Yvette Cooper.
Source: GfK / Business Insider (May 2017)
However, the numbers that really stand out are those that show Tony Blair as less popular than Jeremy Corbyn. 61 per cent of Brits claim that they would not consider voting Labour under Blair compared to 53% that say the same about Corbyn. In fact, Blair is the least popular of all of the five Labour names tested with a ‘net consideration’ score in the doldrums at -38.
Some people will not like these numbers. Indeed, writing for the New Statesman, Patrick Maguire has called these findings ‘self-evidently redundant by [their] own premise’. The argument appears to be that Blair is not going to be Labour leader again and is naturally tainted by 10 years in office and therefore any comparison with Corbyn now is unfair and meaningless. I disagree. Sometimes hypothetical poll questions speak to a wider truth that is important.
These results are certainly not good news for Corbyn. There I do agree. He is deeply unpopular and faces leading Labour to a very heavy defeat. But they tell us something about Blair’s political future that is relevant to his supposed plans.
The problem for Blair is that these findings are not in isolation. Another survey conducted back in February, this time by Opinium, asked respondents to rate whether the Prime Ministers of the past 30 years did a good or bad job in office. Margaret Thatcher came out on top, whilst voters thought that Tony Blair did a ‘bad job’, rather than a ‘good job’, as Prime Minister by a more than 2:1 margin.
Source: Opinium Research / Polling Matters (Feb 17)
How do we explain Blair’s unpopularity? Labour voters. For example, 77 per cent of Conservative voters told Opinium that Thatcher did a ‘good job’ as Prime Minister whereas Labour voters could not make their mind up about Blair. A third said he did a ‘good job’, 37 per cent ‘bad job’ and the rest didn’t know. The same pattern is true in our survey published this week. 44 per cent of current Labour voters would consider voting for a Labour Party led by Tony Blair whereas 40 per cent would not. So the challenge that Blair faces in any political comeback – in whatever form that might take – is that he is divisive among progressives and unpopular among the public as a whole. Our survey this week adds evidence to that point. It’s not enough to blame the legacy of office. Thatcher had that too but remains relatively popular because she is loved by her own side.
So perhaps a good starting point for a Blair comeback would be to make peace with his party. Sometimes Blair does not help himself here. In a wide ranging interview with Alastair Campbell for GQ, Blair repeatedly dodged any opportunity to criticise Donald Trump or Theresa May. Yet he has previously made it very plain what he thinks of Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party. For progressives that want to like him, he is immensely frustrating at times, whilse he has given those that don’t little reason to change their mind since leaving office. How hard would it be for him to criticise Trump?
If Blair is entertaining some form of comeback he needs a constituency in British politics. That constituency is still the centre left first and foremost but he needs to be much stronger in showing them that he is on their side. He should take on conservative forces much more directly and vocally and champion progressive causes and candidates openly (as Obama did recently endorsing Macron). In doing so, he can remind those that used to love him why they did and win over new converts to his side of the political argument. But people won’t come to him. He needs to reach out.
Tony Blair is arguably the best political communicator of his generation but his political antennae has misfired for some time. To have a genuine political future he needs to improve his personal poll ratings so that people will listen to him and that starts with reminding his own side why he is still ‘one of them’. This week’s polling evidence suggests he has some way to go.
Keiran Pedley is a Research Director at GfK and presenter of the ‘Polling Matters ‘podcast. He tweets about polling and politics at @keiranpedley