Are British voters really primed for Corbyn?

We should be wary of any claim that the British public is instinctively left-wing


According to a widely-shared article, the British electorate privately supports solidly left-wing policies such as railway renationalisation and the abolition of tuition fees, even though right-wing governments get elected.

Should we, then, assume that voters would seize the opportunity to have their instincts represented at elections by a Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn?

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 supported Labour 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.

Stating the obvious, the reason we have polling data on most of these positions – fees, tax, Syria – is that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party explicitly represented them. When it came to a large poll of the electorate – a General Election with the highest turnout since 1997 – 49.5 per cent of voters plumped for the Tories or UKIP while 46.5 per cent went for a broad ‘left’ of Labour/SNP/Lib Dem/Green (39.0 per cent if you exclude the ambiguous Lib Dems).

This does not mean we should jettison all Ed’s policies, but it makes clear that being on the right side of public opinion on a basket of issues yields limited rewards.

The most important point is this: sharing some of voters’ positions does not mean you share their overall priorities. Labour’s position on Trident or railway ownership should always be debated but will not swing elections. While it is impossible to disaggregate all the reasons behind Labour’s electoral defeat, TUC-commissioned polling suggested many voters who considered voting Labour ultimately chose not to because of their perceived lack of economic competence.

This is the stubborn frame for policy discussions. It means that even when a policy like the 50 per cent tax rate polls well, many will not trust Labour with the decision. Meanwhile Osborne gets away with unpopular measures like abolishing student grants because – like it or not – people usually think his budgets are fair overall.

Even those who do not agree with the reasonable strategic case for making concessions on austerity should be wary of any claim that the British public is instinctively left-wing and sceptical about cherry-picking policy positions from opinion polls. Remember that UKIP can easily do exactly the same thing on immigration, overseas aid or inheritance tax. Most people are surely to the left of the Conservative frontbench on many issues, but Cameron can rule from the right as long as Labour keeps losing.

Labour’s big challenge is not to provide a voice for an imagined dormant left-wing majority. It needs instead to recognise the sheer dogged power of austerity thinking while also re-establishing itself among non-Labour voters as a plausible party of government.

Labour should not imagine public opinion is static and blindly follow the polls, but nobody should kid themselves that Corbyn would not have at least as hard a job persuading a sceptical public as he would uniting a divided party – both on many specific issues and certainly on the big picture.

Robert Priest is a lecturer in history at Royal Holloway University of London, although this article is written in his capacity as a Labour Party supporter

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25 Responses to “Are British voters really primed for Corbyn?”

  1. Skiamakhos

    What was it, 73% of Mirror readers & 71% of Guardian readers support Corbyn? Something like that anyway. Either way, a pre-existing disposition towards the Left is not essential to the success of a Corbyn-led Labour party. Tireless campaigning, educating people, showing them the benefits, showing them when the Right is lying to their faces, is.
    Tireless campaigning against what looks like the favourite to become Labour Leader is not going to get a Labour victory in 2020.

  2. stevep

    One thing that never gets commented on in opinion polls and surveys, is how the steady and relentless drip, drip, drip of right wing media propaganda affects the thinking of the general public.

    If the public were to have no contact at all with any media for a few months and then asked to comment on whatever, I suspect the results would be very different. They would be commenting on how they actually saw things for themselves, not on how they are usually told how things are.

    Propaganda is power. Totalitarian regimes know it, “Democratic” regimes use it to keep people where they want them and the advertising industry makes extensive use out of it to sell people things they never knew they wanted.

    For the last 30 or 40 years, British people have been told that socialism (the left) is bad and Capitalism (the right) is good. Small wonder then voters who would instinctively be left wing feel unease about anything left of centre.

    Despite the naysayers, scaremongerers and propagandists, there`s no huge support for the right in the UK any more. The Tories barely scraped a majority for the first time in 23 years and UKIP managed one seat.

    The left are split for sure, at the moment, but share common ground on a lot of policies. They also have a lot of MP`s in the Commons. Electoral boundary changes, if they go through, will make things more difficult for Labour, but not impossible.

    The Conservatives and UKIP will face difficult times before and after the EU in/out vote and change of leader. The public won`t swallow austerity mk.2 for much longer either.

    Mass media is in decline and Labour should be utilising internet blogs (like LFF) and social media to campaign and get the message across. It should be using it`s brightest media talents to do this.
    leave the dirty tricks to the Tories, the Left needs to claim the high ground to win support.
    If Labour elects a leader who can clearly distance the party from the Tories, as the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green Party have done and clearly demonstrate policies that are supportive of working people and the wider public then they can win the next General election.

  3. Neil Wilson

    “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.”

    But if they did that it would be a simple lie.

    The ‘price tag’ comes from spending the money in the first place. It all goes around in a big circle. My spending is your income.

    How does saddling youngsters with vast debts help them spend money when they graduate? It is the spending of the young – setting up house, buying their own place, doing refurbishments and buying furniture – that provides huge swathes of the economy with an income.

    It is very bad economics to hang Damocles Sword over them.

  4. Jacko

    A tip Jeremy. If you want to be taken at all seriously by people other than Socialist Worker types get a decent shirt and suit, take the pens out of your top pocket, have a shave, and stop going on about Karl Marx.


    And he should forget about Islamic and Irish fascists.

  6. AlanGiles

    How much is Blair paying these people to write articles like this.

    Go for Burnham or Cooper and be back in 2010/15, or go for Kendall and just amalgamate with the Conservatives.

    You are so cautious you deserve to become an irrelevance

  7. Waldorf

    Ah yes. If only the electorate was as well educated as us.

  8. Viv Dawson

    I didn’t think I was left wing but less than 12 months of political research and I am and I am not alone in that new awareness!

  9. Michael Carey

    A tip Jacko: go out and knock on doors and find out whether people are actually impressed by smarmy New Labour androids in identical suits, and then give an opinion. Keir Hardie wore his flat-cap and was loved for it – all the MPs in their Blairite uniforms just look like adolescents.


    Lots of people think they are left wing until their middle class comfort zone is threatened. The poor do not have much time for research.

  11. Viv Dawson

    That is very presumptuous and condescending. I think retired people of whatever ‘class’ have more time to think and learn. I don’t think of myself as having a class , my Dad was a plumber and his Mum brought him up on her own in a 2 up 2 down. We did ok and I was lucky to be born when I was and get work and a pension. We all need to work together. Lets face it the UK and Europe are fast becoming fascist with gagging laws, crushing democracy and a total disrespect for the people. But a left wing that is all about us and them is not what we need. We need fairness and democracy and a society that supports the weakest and where we treat each other kindly and lookk after our environment. OK I know not possible but we can work towards it. We need to see some human kindness in politics.


    Well Viv no one is gagging you and you do not have a class. Looks like we have a new subject. A classless wummin who is on the left.

  13. Viv Dawson

    Still condescending but hey – why not focus on the matter in hand that way we may stand a chance.

  14. Robert Jones

    Who IS assuming that the electorate is left-wing? What does this point actually mean anyway? We are not engaged in a search for a defined body of opinion in the country on which we can then piggy-back our way to power – we are trying to select a leader who can connect with the public, and put forward policies which are comprehensive and not cloaked in SPAD-speak (which, it has to be said because it’s patently true, is the trouble with the approach of the other candidates and their supporters who have been producing one flaccid article after another in the Guardian, particularly, and Independent occasionally).

    Only a completely deluded fool would suppose that the British public as a whole is yearning for policies which they identify as left-wing – I doubt that most people even think in those terms. They are however looking for policies that will work to restore the British economy, to bind the country together, to resolve its social problems, to house their children and provide them with jobs. If Labour were to concentrate on actually addressing those issues, instead of getting itself into a complete panic about bogey-men and bogey-policies, it should be able to put this terror of rocking the boat behind it and actually SPEAK to the people, instead of trying to reassure them, gleaming teeth fixed in rictus grin, how very responsible we are.

    The more he talked of his honour, the more we counted the spoons – Labour politicians have been transfixed by image, acceptability, what is “appropriate”, desperately, cravenly careful of their language so that they offend no minority, blissfully unaware that in so doing they end up talking like so many robots in language that means absolutely bugger all to the majority of people and even to themselves. I observe that Andy Burnham is realizing this, and trying to break out of the bondage in which his subservience to Harman has tied him – but the fact is that he has to make an effort to do this while Corbyn hasn’t: he never was a machine politician. he is able to make himself understood without looking as though he’s terrified of some ghastly “gaffe”, and that’s why he’s made such startling progress. For Corbyn, it appears, collective responsibility is responsibility not to Labour’s haplessly incompetent interim leader, but to those who have looked to Labour for support and whom we have ignored because we find their embrace toxic.

    The others could, if it isn’t already too late, learn from him.

  15. Faerieson

    During any such presented dichotomy of electoral opinion, perhaps those who oppose the current political thrust should now consider also the increasingly cynical abuse of ‘the opinion poll.’

    Presented, as they so often are, frequently at those crunch moments in the ‘democratic’ process, we might now consider which is driving which, that is whether these polls are always following opinion, or might instead be being used to manipulate them. Who funds the commissioning of these polls, who decides upon the questions asked, the precise wording, which aspects are to be presented, when they are to be unveiled?

    The timing, in recent years, has often seemed very precise, and highly calculated. As if The UK’s media are not already partisan enough, I feel confident in predicting that Jeremy Corbyn will not be well served by these ‘polls.’

  16. Faerieson

    Keep it ‘smoke and mirrors’ shallow. It’s all to be presented in the style of the suit and the haircut. Oh, and keep it light, speak in the language of those who oppose you. And, whilst you’re at it, Jeremy, why not become just another cloned politician? God help us!

  17. Skiamakhos

    Gotta counteract the firehose of Tory [email protected] spewing over the electorate at all times thanks to the likes of the Daily Heil & the Scum somehow. It’s that or concede & present 3 flavours of Tory every election time.

  18. Robert Priest

    Thanks for your comment Robert. In answer to your question, the argument that Corbyn would benefit from a headwind of public opinion on key issues is fairly common in pro-Corbyn articles and blog posts. The Independent article which I used as a starting-point for this post is commonly cited as evidence in favour. That was why I wrote this. My point was to highlight the problems with this kind of argument. Corbyn supporters can make other arguments, as you have rather eloquently. All I am asking here is that they recognise the size of the mountain they would have to climb — particularly on the core attitudes towards taxation and spending, but also on lots of other issues where the public is openly tacking in an entirely different direction (e.g. immigration). Personally I am sceptical that even a respected conviction politician like Corbyn would be able to change minds on this, although I wholly agree that some of the other candidates would do well to learn from his evident sincerity and independence.

  19. Robert Priest

    Thanks Alan. I had always wondered why all that Kazakh money kept landing in my current account, but now I see that Tony has my back. I will be sure to send him a Christmas card with my rictus smile on the front. I am not sure it counts as ‘cautious’ to ask the Labour Party to recognise properly the enormous influence of pro-austerity sentiment, or to convince voters that it is a viable party of government. In any case it would be perfectly possible to read my post above and come to the conclusion that Corbyn is the man to do both of those things, wouldn’t it? This is not my own view, but I tried to write the piece in a way that was realistic about the problem rather than dogmatic about the solution. I’m glad to see you have taken it in this spirit!

  20. madasafish

    SInce Labour have organised a shambles of a Leadership contest – and the candidates are underwhelming, my opinion of Labour’s incompetence has hardened.

    If they can’t organise a Leadership contest and credible leaders, they clearly can’t be trusted to run a Government.

    They are clealry carrying on the tradition of Ed Miliband..

  21. Fouche101

    Nice , subtle bitch slap.

  22. Perry525

    Cameron bought his election via Murdoch and his promise to cripple the
    BBC and enable Sky. Prior to that Blair reached some unknown agreement
    with Murdoch to be elected.
    Seemingly Murdoch is the King maker via his TV and newspapers.
    The question therefore is, what can Labour give Murdoch to gain his support and get elected.

  23. Ted

    “For the last 30 or 40 years, British people have been told that socialism (the left) is bad and Capitalism (the right) is good.”

    Actually they’ve been told that since at least the invention of the printing press. I finally got around to reading “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” this year, (written in 1910) and every one of the working-class Tory/UKIP arguments is present and (in)correct:

    Wikipedia: “The hero of the book, Frank Owen, is a socialist who believes that the capitalist system is the real source of the poverty he sees all around him. In vain he tries to convince his fellow workers of his world view, but finds that their education has trained them to distrust their own thoughts and to rely on those of their “betters”.”

  24. Lamia

    <iOne thing that never gets commented on in opinion polls and surveys, is
    how the steady and relentless drip, drip, drip of right wing media
    propaganda affects the thinking of the general public.

    On the contrary, this is a complaint made over and over on the Guardian’s CiF by people who of course consider themselves immune to media propaganda, but bemoan its influence on the ‘brainwashed’ proles.

    Mass media is in decline…

    Yes, and has been for a decade or more. The Mail and Sun have never had a smaller grip on the public attention, and there are ample information sources from all political angles. Maybe, just maybe, there are things about Labour currently that the public has made its mind up about fairly independently… and doesn’t much like.

    Or you can keep telling yourself that there is nothing wrong with Labour, and that if only the public weren’t brainwashed they’d think just like you.

    They would be commenting on how they actually saw things for themselves, not on how they are usually told how things are.

    Do you realise, despite your view of the masses as political zombies, there is quite wide awareness out there that many on the left despise them as ignorant, brainwashed, racist etcetera.? It’s one of the reasons Labour isn’t as popular as it might be. They know you think they are brainwashed fools – and not surprisingly they don’t like you and won’t vote for you.

    How awful that non-Labour supporters even get to vote. If only it was left to people like yourself who know what is best for everyone, eh?

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