Further thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s (un)electability

Yesterday I published a post arguing that 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 basis for are some opinion polls indicating broad support for his positions on issues like tuition fees, rent controls and renationalising the railways. I suggested that this didn’t mean much: voters for appears to choose parties based more on a broad impression of them rather than on individual policies. With the British Social Attitudes survey indicating that support for tax and spending now a minority position, it is hard to see the belief that the British public are latently socialist as anything other than wishful thinking.

It appears that this may not unduly bother many Corbyn supporters. There’s evidence that, surprisingly for avowed socialists, they prioritise individual expression over social change: they are more interested in whether Corbyn is saying things they like than in whether he’s ever likely to be in a position to turn those words into actions. So unsurprisingly the efforts to argue he can win have tended to be pretty shallow and bluntly not worth dealing with.

An exception to this rule is a piece by my friend Robin McGhee. He suggests that:

I’m not saying Jeremy Corbyn is wonderfully electable. I’m not saying he is necessarily more electable than his opponents. I’m not saying he will lead the Labour party to triumph if he wins its leadership election. I’m not even necessarily saying he’s very good. I’m only saying it’s not true he will be an electoral disaster for the party compared to his opponents.

I find his reasons more persuasive than most yet I am still unpersuaded.

Andy Burnham , Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are all perfect examples of the slick professionalised politician. This doesn’t mean they are actively bad communicators or necessarily come across badly- they aren’t and don’t- but it’s fair to say they will struggle to stand out against the Conservatives.

It seems to me simply obvious that Jeremy Corbyn’s unslick, unprofessionalised, more honest image will be a major advantage against his opponents in the Conservative party, and will likely lead to greater respect amongst, at least, the part of the country which does not hate his views so much they would never contemplate liking him.

Is it so obvious? The blandness of his rivals did not come about by accident, they’ve deliberately cultivated it. It’s their armour against constant media probing for a gaffe. And the less distinctive they make themselves, the fewer potential lines of attack they open up. By contrast, Corbyn will be vulnerable from myriad angles.

If the government becomes unpopular then the Conservatives could turn the next General Election into a referendum on Corbyn as PM. By contrast, I doubt many people have a strong enough view on Andy Burnham to do the same to him

… there is lots of evidence to suggest Corbyn’s policy positions are widely popular amongst the electorate, with majorities supporting them. The day after the release of the poll showing Corbyn with a large lead amongst Labour members, both the Independent and Wings Over Scotland published posts highlighting polling evidence showing support for many of his positions.

As I discussed yesterday this just doesn’t seem all that important. Not only are policies not what drive most voters but the issues on which the public seem to agree with Corbyn don’t seem all that electorally salient.

Corbyn will, less controversially, also be very useful at reconnecting Labour with its increasingly disloyal core vote. Meanwhile, research by the highly-respected academic John Curtis shows Labour’s defeat in 2015 was closely related to the drop of its traditional working-class support between 2005 and 2010, which was not reversed in 2015. Support amongst affluent voters held up in 2015. Obviously a lot of this failure to recapture working-class voters was due to the rise of UKIP and fear of immigration- but it seems absurd to assume that pursuing an economic policy which is against these voters interests’ will be very effective in bringing them back to Labour.

My problem with this is that if you create a polarity between affluent idealists/traditional working class voters then Corbyn seems to belong firmly to the former. He’s from Wiltshire, the son of middle class peace campaigners and now represents of all places Islington.

The suite of policies that are supposedly so popular – scrapping tuition fees, rent controls and renationalising the railways – seem aimed more at a graduate renting a house in the Thames Valley and catching the train into London for work than at anyone else.

It also seems likely that his views on immigration (and perhaps also the monarchy) would alienate traditional working class voters even further.

It is worth remembering Labour lost twice as many MPs to the SNP in 2015 as it did to the Conservatives: it’s clear it needs to make up ground in Scotland at the next election in order to become a bigger parliamentary bloc.

As astonishing as Labour’s collapse in Scotland was, it’s actually a side issue. If Labour had won every seat in Scotland then instead of having a Conservative government with a majority of 12 seats, we’d have had a Conservative government with a majority of 11 seats.

…. a huge proportion of the mainstream print media, not to mention his political rivals, depicted Miliband as a wildly insane “Red Ed” who would destroy the economy with his radical left-wing policies.

The evidence from Ed Miliband’s tenure, therefore, implies that any Labour leader from the current crop of candidates- except possibly Kendall- would be depicted as far more extreme than they actually are. It doesn’t matter what they say or do. The only way Labour could get around this is by electing the most right-wing candidate, Kendall, and even then there is no guarantee it would work due to the die-hard partisanship of an important part of the print media.

I have three distinct responses to this:

1) It sounds like a good argument for voting for Kendall.

2) You can give your enemies more or less to work with here. Corbyn gives them loads.

3) Was it really the perception that he was ‘Red Ed’ that damaged Miliband or was it the view that he was weird, weak and potentially dominated by Nicola Sturgeon?

Finally, Robin adds the caveat that:

Corbyn would still damage the Labour party severely in the short to medium term if elected, because the right of the party would likely go apeshit and cause a civil war, constantly attempting a coup against him and making it difficult for him to govern properly.

I’d suggest that actually understates the problem. Corbyn would also have a lot to fear from his own backers, who I’ve already mentioned seem to prize purity over success. They’re, therefore, likely to punish him for the compromises he will inevitably have to make both to placate Labour MPs, amongst whom he enjoys conspicuously little support, and to begin broadening his appeal enough to potentially win a General Election. It seems likely that a Corbyn led Labour Party would be deeply unstable and therefore distracted by internal infighting.

I suspect that regardless of who become Labour leader, the next election is the Conservative’s to lose. Nontheless, a Corbyn led Labour Party would make it harder for them to bring on their own defeat. He’d have a polarising affect that would allow them to mobilise their own voters and prevent them defecting; Labour would find itself defending its own leaders more out their ideas when they would want to be talking about the government’s deficiencies; and that’s assuming the Party could avoid an all out civil war.

There are in short plenty of reasons to think that Burnham, Cooper and (especially) Kendall are indeed more electable than Corbyn.