Friday, 24 July 2015

Labour members supporting Corbyn aren't crazy. They are addressing fundamental issues of representation within the party with the next General Election five years away.

It's not weird that Corbyn is winning the Labour Leadership contest.  And the electorate of Labour Party members aren't deluded either.  Instead they are poorly understood right now.  Being told by the object of their resentment (the existing party elite) they are morons in need of a heart transplant if they support Corbyn - and should get a grip, taking their responsibilities more seriously - is red rag to a bull when we understand their real motivations.  As are the current campaign tactics of Burnham, Cooper and Kendall:  a barrage of emails and wearisome direct mails, texts and cold calls, force-feeding endless policy messaging down member's throats.  What was required was a community-based campaign from the bottom-up with the electorate contributing to the policy debate and the campaign with crowd-sourced collateral, and the Blairite / Brownite candidates being humble and listening.  It's too late to do that now and I don't believe these candidates know how to do it anyway. (See my 'gamification' proposals in the article entitled 'Singh on Song' on the right-hand column of this page).  Even at 2/1 Corbyn remains a decent bet, assuming the anti-Corbyn side do not manufacture the result by coalescing around a single 'stop-Corbyn' candidate. This blog looks at the recent YouGov polling which provides important insights on why the Labour membership is supporting Corbyn. 

Usually the best way to understand voter behaviour, and one that I would normally default towards, is the classic economic model grounded in assumptions of voter choice and self-interest.  Voters make 'political choices' in response to either the specific policy offering of political leaders which they think benefit them (Downs, 1957) or make broad assessments of party and leader performances on key issues that everyone agrees upon, such as better public services and a stronger economy and for most people less immigration (Clarke et al. 2014).  Every now and then this normal business of the voter is interrupted and trumped by more deep seated concerns about voters' fundamental position or identity within the political system.  This is no less self-interested or rational, particularly given the context and the timing of the leadership election.  Labour members know that the next election is a full five years away, so now is the time to get fundamental about the type of leadership they want, at least for a year or two, without the distractions of policy and performance minutiae.  Deep down, they probably know that Corbyn probably won't last five years, so 'getting real about the election' can be postponed until the next leadership contest which might involve more inspiring alternative candidates.  Indeed, this time the membership have been presented with what are frankly dud alternatives, again, having endured a couple of unlovable recent leaders culminating with an embarrassing one also in Ed Miliband.  Right now we are witnessing the Labour membership, given for the first time real power to select their leader by the new rules of the contest, address the deep-rooted failings of the party that lie behind the poor policy and performance.  They feel alienated and detached from a metropolitan elite that has hijacked the Labour Party over the last 20 years with its professionalism and centralisation, leading to an overly controlling and insincere form of leadership, all contributing to an increasingly detached elite from its grass-roots.  They want to feel part of the Labour Party again with some say from the 'bottom-up', rather than being excluded and patronised from the 'top-down', as has been the case under New Labour and subsequently under Brown and Miliband.  In the lexicon of political science, Labour Party members have become motivated by questions of 'social representation' not 'policy representation' when choosing their next leader. 
Now we have the best evidence so far that Jeremy Corbyn is leading the Labour Leadership contest and by a significant margin.  A YouGov / Times survey (22/07) of 1,054 Labour Party members puts Corbyn on 43% of first preference votes, ahead of Burnham on 26%, Cooper on 20% and Liz Kendall trailing on 11%.  Taking account of second preferences, Corbyn would beat Burnham in final round voting by 53% to 47%.  Even if this polling is a whopping 5% out, the basic story remains the same.  Corbyn is ahead. N.B. Those who criticise online polling methods should reflect that YouGov's vast online panel in the UK of nearing a million people, made the polling of sufficient Labour party members possible.  And the polling information it has delivered tells us enough about the dynamics of the campaign to inform on where the losers are going wrong.

Most of all, the poll has set the campaign alight.  The prospect of Corbyn winning this election is a fascinating prospect. He is one of the most left-wing and outspoken Westminster MPs who has rebelled against the recent Labour governments over 500 times.  Now he is quite likely to become leader of that party.  Having been 200/1 with Bet365 and 100/1 with Ladbrokes when he entered the race, he has been backed all the way down to 2/1 second favourite.  He has therefore a 33.3% chance on winning according the betting markets.  When I was studying A-level politics in the late 80s, if you had to pick out a classic Militant leftie driven by Marxism (and we all subscribed to Marxism Today at my school), it would have been Dave Nellist, Derek Hatton, Dennis Skinner, Eric Heffer or Corbyn, still now a member of the Socialist Campaign Group and a Morning Star columnist, and still very angry.  Check him out here berating Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel Four news: he has the capacity to be fearsome.

The Militant Jeremy Corbyn in the 1980s - this photo resembles a police mugshot

The YouGov poll sheds light on why Corbyn is proving a popular choice, particularly among newer, younger members, trade union affiliated voters and £3 'registered supporters'.  All we hear from the Labour party establishment is that these voters are crazy morons, having an 'emotional spasm', together with the MPs who allowed Corbyn onto the ballot paper in the first place.  According to this script, Labour Party members are engaging in an escapist fantasy when they should be acting responsibly in choosing the best leader for the country.  Not only is this tone likely to further disconnect elites from publics in British politics, it shows a lack of understanding of what is motivating Corbyn supporters.  Voter pessimists would do well to examine the findings of the YouGov poll in detail.

In particular, YouGov asked the Leadership contest electorate what they felt were the 'qualities most needed in the next Labour leader'.  If the voters were motivated in picking a candidate to increase the possibility of a Labour government, we might expect them to place emphasis on the effectiveness of the candidates in winning elections, a long term view five years from the next GE.  However, this is not the case.  Just 27 per cent chose this strength as important.  By contrast, voters in the election were more interested in the candidates being 'in touch' (62%), fighting the Conservatives hard (53%) and being a 'strong leader'.  These are more intrinsic qualities of the here and now.   The voters in this election are not so interested in the instrumental purpose of finding an election winner as feeling they have a leader who they can connect to, and be proud of, in the period running up the next vote.  In short, my reading of these results is the voters are sick of the type of slick, professional leaders who they don't feel good about being in charge.  They want someone - like Corbyn - who will make them proud to be Labour supporters by socking it to Cameron with some passion and belief.  This motivation characterises Corbyn supporters in particular.  Just 10% of them are interested in the candidate 'understanding what it takes to win an election' whereas 30% of Burnham supporters do, 39% of Cooper's and a staggering 63% of Kendall's.   This is the real cleavage of the campaign.  Those who want Labour to be an election winning machine first and foremost are against Corbyn, those who place emphasis on someone who takes on the Tories strongly, sticking up for the (left-wing) concerns of ordinary people, are for Corbyn.  For these voters it's not so much about electoral victory in 2020, it's more about restoring some dignity to the Labour movement in the meantime by not selecting another dull, careerist professional for the job.