A comforting delusion appears to have afflicted some of those supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to be Labour leader: maybe his far left ideology isn’t electoral liability at all, maybe it’s even as asset. The empirical basis for this are opinion polls indicating broad support for his positions on issues like tuition fees, rent controls and renationalising the railways.
Writing for Left Foot Forward, Robert Priest ably dissects this wishful thinking:
It goes without saying that the same opinion polls persistently overstated Labour’s popularity and suffered deep methodological problems, but this does not entirely discredit them. Individual findings are certainly questionable. Yes, polls showed that the public was opposed to the tuition fee rise and broadly supportedLabour modestly reducing tuition fees to £6,000. (By the way, the same polls showed voters thought this would most benefit the well-off.)
But this is not the same as the electorate supporting Corbyn’s total abolition, which he has costed at £7bn. If pollsters offered this much stronger policy to the public with its price-tag attached, it is reasonable to assume reception would be more lukewarm.
We do have an alternative index of public opinion: the British Social Attitudes survey, held every year since 1983 and co-authored by pollster-of-the-moment John Curtice. The most recent BSA showed that a mere 21 per cent of people share Corbyn’s belief in the abolition of tuition fees. People might favour lower fees but they do not oppose them in principle.
Most pressing for the Left is the big picture: the proportion of people in favour of higher taxation and spending has collapsed from 63 per cent to just 37 per cent in the ten years from 2004 to 2014. Support for welfare spending has plummeted. Those who remember Blair-era clichés about a ‘social-democratic majority’ should consider whether they still stand up to scrutiny.
He goes on to discuss a broader problem with the apparently positive polls for Corbyn: voters don’t appear to make their decision on who to vote for based on individual policy positions. Many of the Coaltion governments most popular policies originated with the Liberal Democrats yet the Party still found itself reviled for its perceived treachery and unreliability. Likewise a Corbyn led Labour Party might well find individual policies like nationalising the railways and introducing rent caps were popular but that it was itself unpopular as it was percieved as extreme and economically incompetent.
To be clear, the reason that the British electorate keeps electing broadly centre-right governments is that it is itself broadly centre-right. The Labour Party either needs a plan to change that fact or to win in spite of it. Wishing it away is not a sustainable strategy.