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. 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.

  3. Viv Dawson

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.’

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