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

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

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

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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..

Comments are closed.