by Atul Hatwal
Jeremy Corbyn will not win the Labour leadership. No matter how real the fevered hallucinations currently seem on this acid trip of a leadership contest, they aren’t real.
Predictions of a Corbyn triumph are based on two assumptions: that the polls are right and Labour’s new recruits have been drawn in because of him and his agenda.
Both are wrong.
The polls and campaign canvass returns overstate his support in the same way that Labour’s support was over-estimated in general election polls and the party’s new mass membership is not a seething hotbed of radical ideologues.
The coda for pollsters from the general election was that simply asking people for their voting preference didn’t give answers which reflected actual voting intention.
Mark Textor, Lynton Crosby’s business partner and the man who conducted the Tories’ internal polling, recently held forth on why his polls were right when so many others were so wrong.
He made two points of note.
First, voters frequently use opinion polls as an outlet for protest.
In an online world of one-click opinion, sticking two fingers up at the Tories by backing Labour in a poll was simple, cost free and gratifying. Less easy to actually vote Labour when most did not trust the party on the economy and it was led by someone who few believed to be prime ministerial.
Second, voters’ make their choice on the basis of the outcome they want to avoid as well as the party they support.
While waverers might have been prepared to consider the idea of a Labour government, even with reservations on leadership and the economy, the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition, with Ed Miliband run ragged and dragged even further left on spending by Nicola Sturgeon, tipped the balance. So they voted tactically to prevent what they most feared – even if this meant holding their nose and voting Tory.
These insights are directly relevant to Labour’s leadership race.
After a crushing, demoralising general election defeat for the party, what better way for frustrated members and supporters to flick the bird at the leadership than to tell pollsters and canvassers they are backing Corbyn?
The last YouGov poll which had Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership in the first round on 57% of first preferences contained an interesting detail: among full members that had joined before Ed Miliband’s leadership, it registered 39% as backing Corbyn.
Think about that for a moment.
These are members that voted in the last leadership election when Diane Abbot got 7% of their vote.
It’s likely that the ideological balance of this group will have shifted towards the left in the past five years as centrists have left the party, but to go from 7% backing the far left candidate in 2010 to 39% in 2015 would be an extraordinary, mass Damascene conversion.
Unless of course a significant proportion of YouGov’s 2015 respondents were simply using the poll as a way protest; to let off steam – egged on by a Labour twitter-sphere in full cry – at the party machine and politics in general for May’s failure, just as Mark Textor observed about the general election polls.
The latest YouGov poll is also interesting because of what it reveals on the Labour selectorate’s impressions of the candidates.
Only a minority view Jeremy Corbyn as competent – 38% – compared to 53% for Andy Burnham and 61% for Yvette Cooper. He is also seen as the candidate most likely to lead Labour to defeat at the next election 29% versus 12% each for Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper.
If the outcome that party members and supporters want to most avoid – the equivalent to a Labour-SNP coalition for general election voters – is a Conservative government, Corbyn’s headline support will likely be masking shy Burnhams, Coopers and maybe even Kendalls, similar to those Labour supporting poll respondents at the election who quietly voted Tory in the booth.
The counter to this argument is that Labour’s voters are sceptical about the capability of any of the candidates to win the next general election and given such a poor choice, Corbyn at least offers a the prospect of a loss without compromising on principle.
There is evidence in the YouGov poll to back this up. Corbyn and Burnham are tied on a poor 26% as the candidates seen as most likely to win an election with Cooper on 21% and Kendall on 7%.
However, while a proportion of pre-election members will feel like this, it does not approximate the voting calculus for most new joiners.
Since the election, Labour’s leadership selectorate has grown by over 400,000, tripling in size.
For these new recruits to be Corbynistas, they must either believe that Jeremy Corbyn is Labour’s best chance of power or they do not care about winning elections (otherwise why join an electorally doomed party that only has leadership candidates who will lose) and want their hard left champion in charge of a mainstream party.
Either way, they would have to be from the far left of British politics. But the numbers signing-up to Labour simply do not tally with some basic facts about the British left.
According to the House of Commons Library’s most recent analysis of the membership of major non-party campaigns, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity has 40,000 people on their mailing list.
The Stop The War movement has 53 groups across a country where there are 650 constituencies. CND is down to roughly 30,000 members and the Socialist Workers Party membership is measured in the dozens.
The total membership of the Green party is just over 60,000 and a grand total of 36,368 people voted for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) at the election.
Every single participant in these groups could join Labour and even assuming a member of one group was not part of any other or already a member of Labour (which stretches credibility), they would still be a lot less than half of Labour’s post-election influx.
Among the unions, Unite might have attracted tens of thousands of members to become affiliates, but their recruitment operation has extended considerably beyond their activist core into the wider membership – a membership where over a quarter voted Conservative in 2010.
Late last week Ben Bradshaw tweeted his local party’s analysis of its new registered supporters.
Exeter Labour Party has cross referenced all new registered supporters with our voter ID – 2nd best in UK. 10% always been strongly against!
— Ben Bradshaw (@BenPBradshaw) August 13, 2015
10% of new supporters being committed opponents to Labour isn’t great but the analysis suggests that 90% are either potential switchers or already sympathetic.
These figures do not tell a tale of a takeover of Labour by the best part of half a million hardcore leftists. Enough new and returning left-wingers to pack out Corbyn rallies? Yes. To turn Labour into Syriza? No.
Instead, Labour’s new members, affiliates and registered supporters will largely be people who woke up on May 8th and for the first time in 23 years found that the Conservatives had won a majority.
The shock of the result after the polls pointed to a Labour victory, the return of untrammelled Tory rule and the opportunity to vote in the Labour party leadership election has prompted hundreds of thousands of people to get involved.
This combination of polls which are too generous to Corbyn and new recruits who are more mainstream than assumed, fundamentally changes the doomsday scenario that most centrists think they are facing.
The bulk of Labour’s new voters do care about electability and Corbyn’s seemingly unassailable poll lead is soft.
Taking YouGov’s latest figures, if just over 1 in 4 of his vote opt for other candidates in the first round (because respondents used the poll to protest, inflating the headline rating and genuine sympathisers switch because of electability concerns), Corbyn’s vote falls to the low 40s from where he would struggle to pick up the second preferences needed to pass 50%.
Looking back to YouGov’s last poll of the 2010 Labour leadership election, there is evidence that the vote for the most left-wing candidate was over-stated by this type of margin. Diane Abbot was projected to get 11% among members whereas she achieved 7% – the poll over-estimated her vote by a shade more than a third.
If the polling position in the campaign is that Corbyn is actually in the mid to high forties at the moment, as some of the campaigns believe, based on their canvass returns, then he will be beaten soundly once the protest voters and electability worriers have switched.
A few weeks ago, I predicted Corbyn would finish fourth. That won’t happen. Too much has changed and his campaign momentum will carry through into the vote.
But he will not win.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut