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13 January 2020

Remember: the average Labour member isn’t as political as you think

Our poll of party members’ voting intentions made headlines, but the detail is just as important. 

By Tim Bale

Just after New Years, we – the ESRC-funded Party Members Project run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University – released the results of a survey of Labour Party members that we’d commissioned YouGov to run for us over Christmas.

We knew these results might cause a stir, showing as they did that – at least when our questionnaire was in the field – that Keir Starmer appeared to be a fairly long way ahead of Rebecca Long-Bailey, seen by many as the continuity Corbyn candidate.

Cue predictable accusations that a thousand or so people couldn’t possibly give anyone an idea of how the membership as a whole is thinking, that no one should trust any survey conducted by an organisation “owned by Tories”, and that we’d set a bandwagon rolling that would skew the result against the left.

The purpose of this piece is not to answer those accusations – we’ve already attempted to do so elsewhere – but to provide another perspective on members’ views on the leadership

We can do that not by reheating their responses to our questions, which asked them to rank a number of potential runners and riders from a pre-prepared list by focusing on an open-ended question that, earlier on in the questionnaire, simply asked them who they thought should replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

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Not altogether unpredictably, these also suggest Starmer is the single most popular choice, named (unprompted remember) by 21 per cent of members – twice as many as those (10 per cent) who named Rebecca Long-Bailey.

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(Note to journalists and political insiders, by the way: just one solitary respondent referred to her by her initials, so maybe stop trying to make “RLB” happen.)

In third place, Jess Philips – named unprompted by 7 per cent of members – wasn’t in fact that far off Long-Bailey.  But on these early figures, you can see why Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry (both on 3 per cent) and Clive Lewis (on 2 per cent), for all their strengths, may struggle to obtain sufficient CLP nominations.

And you can see why, in the end, discretion proved (by far) the better part of valour for Corbyn loyalists like Ian Lavery (1.5 per cent) and Barry Gardiner (0.5 per cent).

Members’ unprompted responses also give a very strong clue (but don’t of course constitute a sure-fire prediction) as to the likely outcome of the contest for deputy leader, even though we didn’t ask about that particular battle.

That’s because 6 per cent of members made Angela Rayner their pick for the leadership, compared to the handful who named Dawn Butler (0.4 per cent) and Richard Burgon (0.2 per cent).

Of course, it’s always possible that Labour members value a different set of qualities in a deputy – after all, they picked Tom Watson as Corbyn’s number two back in 2015. But Rayner is, on these numbers, going to be hard to beat.

Talking of Corbyn, by the way, leads us to two final points – one trivial (if, perhaps, revealing) and one potentially very important.

On the first point, connoisseurs of all things Labour might enjoy the fact that some three per cent of members expressed the view that Jeremy Corbyn should stay on as leader. Clearly, it’s not just Jane Austen’s heroines who ‘love longest, when all hope is gone.’

On the second point, it is always (always, always) worth recalling that when we conducted the same exercise just after the 2015 election – at a point when we really had no idea who would stand to replace Ed Miliband and so only asked members to write in suggestions rather than pick from a list – just two or three out of around eleven hundred who responded put down Jeremy Corbyn.

That a man whom I doubt even many Labour members had heard of (or at least knew much about) then went on to win the leadership surely goes to show that the coming campaign can make a difference – not least because, for all that the contest can currently be presented as being Keir Starmer’s to lose, by far the most popular choice when we asked members for their unprompted suggestions was a Mr or Ms Don’t Know/Can’t Say, on a stand-out 32 per cent.

In short – and no doubt Starmer’s team knows this as well as anyone – in this Labour Leadership contest, it ain’t over until it’s over.