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How 'unelectable' is Jeremy Corbyn?

There are arguments to be had over whether Corbyn’s policies would work – but the available evidence suggests his agenda is more palatable to the electorate than many would like to admit. 

Jonathan Knott
2 September 2015
Jeremy Corbyn

What do the polls say about Corbyn's agenda? Flickr/Bob Peters. Some rights reserved.

Commentators across the political spectrum have finally found something they can agree on: Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. Some on the right make clear their disdain for all he stands for. Others, on the centre left, have a more subtle argument. We’d love to vote for him, they say, but he’d never win over the wider public – so it’s time to get real.

These arguments don’t win any prizes for originality, and they’re not much better in terms of accuracy. One of the positive results from the failure of polls to predict the election result is a greater scepticism about what they can tell us – but they remain useful evidence of how public opinion stands. Here are some areas where it can be useful to compare this against accepted wisdom.

Was Miliband ‘too left wing’? Personality vs policy

Tony Blair voiced his fears before the election that “a traditional left wing party competes with a traditional right wing party, with the traditional result.”

Many commentators believe events proved him right, arguing that Miliband was rejected for being too left-wing – and hence that it’s crazy to expect a candidate further to the left to do better than he could. But plenty of research suggests that personality and perceived leadership qualities were equally if not more important factors than policy in voters’ rejection of Miliband. Fairly or otherwise, his failure to convince the public that he was personally up to scratch was a serious, arguably decisive handicap.

From 2010 until April this year, YouGov regularly asked people who they thought would make the best Prime Minister out of Miliband, Cameron and Clegg. On this measure Miliband was consistently behind Cameron for five years. In the last poll before the election, 40% said that Cameron would make the best Prime Minister while only 26% said the same of Miliband.

When the leaders’ parties were mentioned, the results were much closer with “Conservatives led by Cameron” preferred to “Labour led by Miliband” by 42% to 39% of respondents. It’s hardly unreasonable to speculate that a Labour party with the same policies, but led by someone able to convey stronger leadership qualities, could have performed better.

Miliband also trailed Cameron on specific qualities often associated with leadership. Just before the election, 21% of people thought Cameron was ‘a natural leader’, 21% thought he was ‘strong’, 24% ‘decisive’ and 17% ‘charismatic’. These numbers may not look great but they are significantly less dire than Miliband’s (4%, 9%, 9%, and 6% respectively). (There were some crumbs of comfort for Miliband: he outperformed Cameron on being ‘in touch with ordinary people’ by 26% to 8% and ‘honest’ by 19% to 12%).

After the election, Lord Ashcroft carried out a survey of 12,000 people who voted, attempting to analyse their motivation. Respondents were asked to choose their top three reasons for voting the way they did. The top two reasons given by people who voted Conservative were “I thought the leader of the party I chose would make the best prime minister” and “I trusted the motives and values of that party more than other parties” (both were chosen by 71%). The “Motives and values” reason was actually slightly more important for people who voted Labour (75% put it in their top three reasons). But only 39% of Labour voters put the “leadership” reason among their top three.

In other words, people who voted Labour were equally as persuaded by the motives and values of their chosen party as people who voted Conservative. But Miliband was apparently a much weaker factor in persuading people to vote for his party than Cameron was for Tory voters. On this evidence, it would seem that getting a more convincing leader, rather than some more right wing policies, was the greater priority for Labour.

The "Listening to Labour's Lost Labour Voters" report of focus group discussions with former Labour voters in marginal seats, which was featured by the Observer in July, also found that Miliband’s personal qualities were one of the key reasons given for not voting Labour. 

“These voters didn’t see Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister. In fact, many people in the groups laughed at the prospect of him being the leader of the UK,” said the report. It added: “their image of Labour as a political party with a leader that was open to derision clouded all their thinking about a renewed Labour Party.”

These voters referred to Blair as a “template” for a leader – not for his policies, but because he was a “likable person and a genuine family bloke”. Politicians as divergent as Boris Johnson and Charles Kennedy were also mentioned as positive examples.

“These voters are seeking an authenticity in the leader that they can only judge through the media. They are looking for someone who is relaxed, comfortable and confident in their dealings with the national media. They can see through people who are trying to be politicians as opposed to people who are being themselves. There was a clamour for more ‘yes’ and ‘no’, straight answers instead of ducking and waffling from politicians. And they wanted all politicians to stop trying to please everyone all the time, because that can only lead to dissembling and fudge.”

It’s easy to overestimate the importance of specific policies and underestimate the importance of personal appeal. This latter factor worked in Blair and Cameron’s favour, and worked against Miliband. It remains to be seen what the wider public thinks of Corbyn, but the point is that a lot of it’s about personality, not policy.

Spending cuts

Labour’s wider inability to inspire trust – on the economy, and more generally – is another reason why more people didn’t vote for them. In Ashcroft’s post-election poll only 26% of people who voted Labour said that one of their top three reasons for doing so was because they thought that “the senior members of the party I chose would make a more competent government” (46% of Tory voters put this among their top three reasons). Polling for the TUC by GQRR also found that 32% of voters thought that Labour was “competent”, compared to 57% who had that perception of the Tories.

The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman has highlighted “public spending and welfare cuts” as areas where the Corbynite left of the Labour party is “out of kilter with the electorate”.  Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times likewise pinpointed “zero austerity” as one of Corbyn’s ideas that he predicted will eventually “lose their eccentric charm and acquire the infamy they deserve”.

At first glance The TUC/GQRR poll seems to tie in with these views. It found that the number one doubt putting people off voting Labour in the election (cited by 40% of voters) was that “they would spend too much and can’t be trusted with the economy”. I don’t doubt that this finding is an accurate reflection of people’s impressions of Labour – but it’s not an indication that the electorate is fundamentally opposed to public spending.

The pollster who carried out the research says: “this concern is not rooted in the fiscal position used in the campaign; in fact by a 5 point margin voters thought Labour should cut spending more slowly than they planned rather than faster. Instead… it is Labour’s inability to demonstrate clear change from the past that grounds concern… The leadership candidates are right to come to a reckoning with that history on spending – it either needs to be fought for or conceded.”

When asked about public spending and cuts in less political contexts, public opinion is consistently shown to be fairly evenly divided. Many people think that cuts are being implemented unfairly, and deeper questioning finds that people are cautious about where they will support them. 

YouGov’s fortnightly opinion tracker on spending cuts from 2010-2015 tells an interesting story. In June 2010, more people thought that “the way the government is cutting spending to reduce the government’s deficit” was good (49%) rather than bad (31%) for the economy. But opinion soon turned against cuts and by January 2011, more people thought the government’s spending cuts were bad (47%) rather than good (38%). It was only in the second half of 2013 that this trend changed and people started to see the cuts as good rather than bad again. When people were last asked (in May), 48% of people thought that government cuts were good for the economy and 34% thought they were bad.

Opinion on whether the cuts were needed was more consistent. Throughout the whole of the last parliament, a majority of people viewed the cuts as “necessary” (by 58% to 28% in May). There was also a tendency to see Labour as more responsible for the cuts than the coalition. In May 38% said Labour were more to blame, while 32% put more blame on the coalition.

Together, these findings suggest that many people were sold on the Tories’ austerity arguments, and that the austerity narrative gained traction as the economy improved. But equally, opinion on whether the government’s cuts were good or bad for the economy was not fixed, and a significant proportion of people (18% in May) were undecided. And since 2010 there has also consistently been more people thinking that the cuts were being done ‘unfairly’ than ‘fairly’ (by a margin of 50% to 33% in May). So Corbyn’s anti-austerity ideas would not be falling on entirely deaf ears.

Other polls on similar topics also find opinion divided. In 2014, Populus carried out a poll for the Financial Times which suggested that the public were slightly against continued austerity. 41% of people agreed with the statement that “the national economy is not yet fully fixed, so we need to continue with austerity and cuts in government spending over the next five years”. 28% said that while austerity had been needed, another five years of it was not. And 18% said that austerity had never been needed. The last two add up to 46% against continuing with austerity.

And in another YouGov poll in January, more people (32%) said that they would prefer to see the next government “giving public services more money and more investment to try and improve services, even if it means the government has to borrow more and builds up more debt” rather than “doing more to reduce the amount the government borrows and the debt it builds up, even if it means public services do less or have to do things with less money” (24%). 29% wanted to keep borrowing and spending on public services about the same. (Interestingly, UKIP supporters were split evenly between these three options.)

Welfare cuts

In April the Financial Times reported that “Britons back further welfare cuts” since its polling with Populus found that 75% of people thought “there is still too much money being wasted on paying benefits to people who don’t need them”.  

Looking in more detail at the poll’s findings, this conclusion is debatable. Only half of these people (37%) actually agreed that the government should continue its programme of welfare cuts. The remaining 38% thought that while money was wasted, “the government is targeting the wrong people in trying to reduce the welfare bill”. Meanwhile, 25% of people thought that “the amount of money being wasted on benefits has always been overstated and is just being used as an excuse to take money away from people who need it”. These last two categories add up to a majority of 63% who could reasonably be described as being against the government’s welfare cuts.

When the same poll asked people about spending cuts in a range of particular areas, the only area where more people supported cuts than supported either maintaining similar spending or increasing spending was overseas aid (which 69% were in favour of cutting). On child benefit, pensioner benefits and working age benefits (as well as schools, the NHS, defence, funding for local councils, and university tuition fees), a majority of people supported either increasing government spending, or keeping it roughly the same.

There was a similar pattern in a YouGov poll after the recent budget, where they asked voters whether the government’s welfare cuts over the past five years had gone too far or not far enough. 23% of people thought that the government had “got the balance about right” and 24% thought that they had “not gone far enough”, combining to make 47% – more than the 38% who thought that welfare cuts had “gone too far”. This trend is backed up by responses to the other questions YouGov asked. 45% of people thought that the money available for benefits was too high; slightly more than the 40% who thought it was either too low or about right. And a clear majority of 57% thought that the number of people eligible to claim benefits was “too wide”, rather than 19% who thought it was “too narrow”.

A different picture emerged, though, when the poll asked about the amount of money spent on specific groups of people receiving benefits. The only group who people thought too much money was spent on benefits for was “better off retired people”. In the cases of people who were on the state pension, out of work, disabled, in work but on low wages, or who were working and had children, a majority of people thought that either the right amount, or too little, money was being spent on benefits.

These results appear contradictory, but the key issue seems to be perceptions of fairness. The public supports benefits for people who need them, and opposes them for people who don’t. The fact that people tend to support welfare cuts when not asked about specific areas suggests that a narrative focusing on scroungers and wasted money has been somewhat persuasive. Equally, the findings that people don’t support many specific cuts to benefits suggest that there are limits to how far such ideas can take root when they don’t match reality.

On his independent blog, YouGov’s director of political and social polling Anthony Wells says “I hardly think when people talk about benefit cuts they are thinking of winter fuel payments, rather I expect the support comes from the continuing belief that lots of benefits go to categories not asked about like ‘people who aren’t really disabled’, ‘people who could work but can’t’, ‘asylum seekers’ and so on.”

The company also found a more or less even split in June on whether the government’s planned additional £12bn of welfare cuts were “in principle” the right or wrong thing to do. And a ComRes poll in July found that a majority (57%) opposed the proposed cuts.

These results suggest that politically, the issues of public spending and welfare cuts are more up for grabs than many commentators suggest. But even if voters were willing to back higher public spending in principle, it doesn’t mean they would trust Labour to carry it out. It will undoubtedly be a challenge for whoever leads Labour to overturn negative perceptions of the party’s competence.

Tax

Corbyn’s support for higher taxes on the wealthy appears to be in line with what the electorate thinks. In 2014 YouGov found that more people would support than oppose income tax for those on over £120,000 being raised to 60% (45% vs 35%). By a margin of 44% to 38%, people opposed a rate of 80% on income over £300,000. But given that not even Corbyn would be likely to propose a rate this high, the relatively high proportion of people that support it is interesting – particularly since it includes a quarter of Conservative supporters. In a 2012 poll, YouGov also found that a majority (56%) supported a rate of 75% for people earning over £1 million a year.

A ComRes poll for the Daily Mail before the budget showed that only 33% per cent of people supported cutting the top rate of income tax for those earning over £150,000 to from 45% to 40%. This policy was opposed by 61% of respondents, including a majority (57%) of Conservative supporters.

In the 2014 poll, YouGov also had a question on wealth distribution in a more general sense. They found that 56% of people would like to see “a more equal distribution of wealth, even if the total amount of wealth was reduced”. And only 17% agreed with “increasing the total amount of wealth, even if its distribution is less equal”. 

Tax the rich

A popular message. Flickr/Fibonacci Blue. Some rights reserved.

Nationalisation

“Mass nationalisation” has been highlighted by some commentators as one of Corbyn’s problematic policy areas. But as others have pointed out, polls consistently indicate that the public tends to be in favour of nationalisation.

The railways and energy are the two areas that Corbyn’s campaign has focused on. A YouGov poll in 2013 asked people whether they favoured railway and energy companies (as well as the Royal Mail and the NHS) being publicly or privately run. About two thirds of people said that railway and energy companies should be publicly run (66% and 68% respectively). 84% supported a publicly run NHS and 67% a publicly run Royal Mail.

In 2015 YouGov asked people about the same subject in a slightly different way, offering a third option of “it doesn’t matter which sector they are run in, as long as the standard of service is maintained”. In this poll, a narrow majority (52%) continued to support rail nationalisation, compared to 27% favouring privately run railways and 14% choosing “whatever maintains standards”. The balance of opinion was also in favour of nationalising utilities. 47% supported nationalising them and 16% preferred to see them privately run. 30% wanted whatever maintains standards.

The second way of asking the question arguably gives a better reflection of how people view the issue. The results suggest that public opinion tends to favour nationalising rail and utilities, with an additional, relatively small proportion open to nationalisation if it works. The 2015 survey also asked about a wider range of areas and found that people tended to support publicly run schools, hospitals, postal delivery, prisons, and roads/motorways – but not banks.

YouGov also did a poll in 2014 looking at people’s top three reasons for supporting or opposing rail re-nationalisation. The reasons most people found more persuasive in favour of re-nationalisation were that “fares would go down” (40%) and “railways should be more accountable to taxpayers rather than shareholders” (46%).

32% of people said that the argument “it would be more cost-effective overall” was one of the most persuasive in favour of re-nationalisation, while 16% said that “it would be less cost-effective overall” was one of the most persuasive reasons to oppose re-nationalisation. Opponents of rail nationalisation often argue that it would be a waste of money, but on this evidence that line of reasoning is not resonating with the public.

NATO and Trident

John McTernan has singled out Corbyn's preference for leaving NATO and giving up nuclear weapons as “electorally toxic".

A YouGov poll last year asked people about the UK’s commitment to NATO. 57% thought the UK should “maintain its commitment to defend NATO allies when attacked”, with 18% opposed and about a quarter (26%) not sure.

However, when asked about commitments to help defend specific NATO countries, the results are more complicated. The poll asked people whether the UK should be willing to use military force if Russia attacked a range of countries. Majorities supported helping to defend the United States (52%) and France (51%), and 43% supported helping to defend Poland. With regard to NATO members Latvia and Turkey, people were split more or less evenly between using military force, not using it, and “don’t know”.

It’s reasonable to assume that most of the public haven’t thought through their views on NATO membership fully. But in this poll, people tended to support continuing with the NATO alliance in theory, but were divided on following through with some of commitments entailed by membership. In the event that Russia attacked Latvia, it’s hard to predict what public opinion would be on the UK lending its military support to the Baltic state.

Polls tend to show that the public don’t support nuclear weapons in theory. A ComRes survey in 2014 for WMD awareness found that 78% agreed with the statement that “nuclear weapons for defence purposes are too expensive for governments to maintain” and 70% that “nuclear weapons should not be part of a country’s defence system”.

Asked specifically about Trident, the results are less clear. In the same survey, 24% of people thought that the UK’s nuclear weapon system should be disbanded in favour of disarmament. A similar proportion (26%) supported a nuclear weapons system that was reduced in size and capacity. 29% supported renewing the system to maintain the same size and capacity.

So 55% supported retaining nuclear weapons in some form. But given that before they were asked specifically about Trident, about a quarter (23%) didn’t know whether the UK had any nuclear weapons or plans to replace them, it’s hard to argue that this is a high priority for voters.

In 2009, an ICM poll for the Guardian found that 54% of people thought that “Britain should no longer have a nuclear deterrent”.  

And in the same year, a poll carried out by ComRes for the Independent found that 58% agreed that “given the state of the country's finances, the Government should scrap the Trident nuclear missile system”.

More recent polling seems to show broad support for retaining nuclear weapons, however. In 2013, YouGov found that 32% of people supported ordering four new submarines to replace Trident, while 34% favoured a cheaper way of keeping nuclear weapons. So two thirds of the public favoured keeping some kind of nuclear deterrent. When forced to choose between retaining Trident and scrapping it (with no cheaper alternative), 56% supported ordering four new submarines.

Another YouGov poll for the Times in 2015 found that 25% of people supported “replacing Trident with an equally powerful nuclear missile system” and a further 31% thought that Britain should have a less powerful, cheaper nuclear system.

Some of these results are contradictory but the general picture is that while the public is against nuclear weapons in theory, people tend to favour the UK retaining some kind of nuclear weapons (with a slight preference for a cheaper option). To suggest that opposition to nuclear weapons is “electorally toxic” is stretching it.

Ban the bomb

Opinion on Trident can be difficult to gauge. Flickr/alister. Some rights reserved.

This is one area where a fixation on the politics of the eighties may be warping some people’s perceptions. Significant numbers of people are either undecided on these issues, or don’t have clear views. A different YouGov poll from June this year found clear tendencies for people to think that both NATO membership and nuclear weapons made Britain safer rather than less safe. But equally, a relatively large proportion of respondents either said that these made little difference either way to Britain’s safety, or didn’t know. The combined proportion of people saying either "makes little or no difference either way" or "don't know" was 43% for NATO membership and 49% for having nuclear weapons.

Immigration

Corbyn wants to end the scapegoating of migrants and recognise the contribution they make. The public see immigration as an important issue. It’s thought to be too high and to have a negative effect on the country.

Ipsos MORI’s Global @dvisor poll on attitudes to immigration found in July that 60% of British people agreed with the statement that there were “too many immigrants” in Britain (compared to only 18% who disagreed). The poll also found that 52% of people think that immigration has a negative impact on Britain, compared to 28% of people think that it has a positive impact. Opinion on the question of whether immigration has been good for the economy was more balanced. 37% agreed that immigration was “good for the economy of our country”, while 35% disagreed. Over two thirds of people (68%) agreed that “Immigration has placed too much pressure on public services in our Country” and about half (48%) agreed that “Immigrants in our Country have made it more difficult for nationals to get jobs”.

But questioning about “immigrants” rather than “immigration” gets more Corbyn-friendly answers. In an October 2014 poll for Sky News, YouGov asked people their views on whether immigrants from different parts of the world made a positive or a negative contribution to today’s Britain. Immigrants from many places were felt to make a positive contribution – not just those from Australia, the US, and Western European countries but also those from Poland, the West Indies, and India.

People had overall negative impressions of the contribution made by immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania, but also Albania – a country from where few migrants come to the UK. Commenting on the Albania result, the company’s President Peter Kellner said: “The fact that our reaction is much the same as to Bulgaria and Romania suggests that public attitudes are shaped more by generalised fears than by personal experience.”

Previous polls in the Ipsos MORI series indicate that attitudes to immigration have steadily become more positive over recent years – albeit from a low base. For example, the 60% who agree that there were “too many immigrants” is down from 71% in 2011. And the 68% agreeing that “Immigration has placed too much pressure on public services in our Country” is down from 76% in the same year.

In the latest Economist/Ipsos MORI issues Index (July 2015), which asks people what they think the important issues facing the country are, immigration/immigrants came number one, mentioned by 42% of people. This means it was seen as more important than the NHS (mentioned by 32%) and the economy (27%). 24% of people named immigration as the most important issue facing the country. 

Similar YouGov research finds that people tend to see immigration as a more important issue for the country than for themselves and their families. People are regularly asked what they see as the most important issues facing the country, and facing themselves and their families. In May this year, immigration was seen as the most important issue facing the country. 52% of people put in in their top three, compared to 47% for the economy and 43% for health. But when asked about the most important issues facing “you and your family”, only 22% of people put immigration in their top three. This put it well below the economy (45%) and health (42%), and on a comparable level to pensions (25%) and tax (21%). 

Summary

In some policy areas, such as higher taxes on the rich and nationalisation, Corbyn appears to be more in line with public opinion than his rival leadership candidates. In key contested areas like public spending and welfare, people are divided, but seem to be more receptive to Corbyn’s policies than is often assumed. The Tories have successfully framed debates in their terms, but the hold of these ways of thinking doesn’t appear to be unshakeable. Immigration is one issue where Corbyn appears to be out of step with public opinion, but even here, the picture is a bit more complex than that.

Of course, there are separate arguments to be had over whether Corbyn’s policies would work, and he would need to overturn negative perceptions of his party – but his agenda is more palatable to the electorate than many would like to admit. 

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