Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, and (following a vote of no confidence and a leadership challenge) re-elected to the same post in September 2016. In February this year, many of those who had re-elected him expressed disappointment at his effectively unconditional support for Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s invocation of the Article 50 process to leave the European Union; perhaps to placate them, Corbyn subsequently called for a demonstration in support of those who would suffer the most from EU withdrawal, but then failed to turn up. Part of the public rationale for Corbyn’s three-line whip on the Brexit vote was that if the party opposed it, then that might lead to a loss of support in predominantly working class constituencies in the North and the Midlands that had voted Leave by large margins: constituencies such as Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, where the party nevertheless went on to lose vote share in by-elections later the same month. But despite all this — despite Brexit, which Labour Party members and voters had overwhelmingly voted against, and despite what was arguably the worst by-election performance for an opposition party since the late 19th century (see O’Hara 2017) — Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party are still for the most part Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party, and they’re not going anywhere — and neither, therefore, is the man himself. Asked whether Corbyn’s continued leadership of the party was a good thing, the answer from sidelined Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, was pragmatic: ‘It doesn’t matter; that is the situation’ (interviewed in Walker 2017). This impasse will not endure forever: Prime Minister Theresa May has called for an early General Election, and Corbyn (who has been asking for one since December last year) has given his support. But in the six weeks that we have left until the Labour Party is overwhelmingly (and perhaps irreparably) crushed, it may perhaps be worth reflecting on how it got into this appalling mess.
Findings from a recent opinion poll were repeatedly shared on Labour Party-affiliated social media groups over the last weekend. The poll was commissioned by researchers at Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End Institute, and asked people in London both about their voting intentions and about how well they felt that seven particular politicians were doing in their current jobs. Social media users commonly focused on the politicians’ net job approval ratings: that is, the percentage of people saying that each politician was doing well in his/her job minus the percentage of people saying that each politician was doing badly in his/her job. The seven politicians in question were the leaders of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, and Ukip (i.e. Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, Caroline Lucas, Tim Farron, and Paul Nuttall, respectively), plus the Mayor and the ex-Mayor of London (i.e. Sadiq Khan and Boris Johnson, again respectively). If you are not fortunate enough to spend a little part of each week staring at the slow motion car crash that is political social media, you may also have come across the same poll in newspaper reports that similarly focused on the finding that ‘Jeremy Corbyn has a worse personal approval rating even in London than every other major party leader, including Ukip’s Paul Nuttall’ (Peck, 2017).
Labour’s performance in recent by-elections has been — shall we say — a little weak. As Glen O’Hara (2017) observes, ‘[g]overnments have increased their by-election vote share only seven times since 1970’, but two of those occasions were last month, which was ‘the first time the Government has seen its vote rise in two simultaneous by-elections since 1954’. Who is to blame? Some point the finger at Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair for selling out the interests of the working classes — as supposedly represented by the party’s ‘hard left’ wing, until recently led by the late Tony Benn — and chasing the middle class vote instead. But this version of events rests on a misunderstanding of the Labour vote: Theo Bertram’s (2017) analysis shows that the Labour Party has only won General Elections when the proportion of skilled workers voting Labour rose and the proportion of skilled workers voting Conservative fell (yes, this happened under Blair; the opposite happened under Corbyn).
Bertram’s much smarter than me, but his argument is based on opinion polls, which not everybody appears to respect. For that reason, I thought I’d create some charts showing shares of the actual vote in strongly working class constituencies. Hmm, how about Copeland (formerly, Whitehaven) and Stoke-on-Trent Central?
Over the last few months, I’ve often heard that polls can’t be trusted. In particular, I have heard that they can’t be trusted because each one usually involves study of only about a thousand individuals. I have even heard that argument from a retired quantitative linguist.1 So I’ve put together this essay in order to explain how polls work, why a random sample of a thousand should usually be considered sufficient, and why the results should be treated as informative even though they do not enable us to predict precise numbers of votes (which is a particular problem when the results are going to be close — because then, precise numbers can make all the difference).
Last month, I came out to my friends as a non-supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Since that time, I’ve been public about it in my own small way. It took me a while to admit that my party was led by someone who did not have its voters’ interests at heart, but the key moment came when I was delivering leaflets for the Labour Party’s In for Britain campaign and I ended up talking to a man who had voted both for the Labour Party under Tony Blair and for the Conservative Party under David Cameron. A man – in case this isn’t obvious – from outside my middle class bubble in which people will express solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn even while being unsure that they really agree with him, and in which there are probably more anarchists than conservatives. I picked up that he wanted a Labour Party that he could vote for again. For Jeremy Corbyn, he had two devastating words: ‘Student politics.’ Those words stuck with me.
It wasn’t just that he was a swing voter in a marginal constituency, and therefore exactly the kind of person that Labour needs to be reaching out to if it ever wants to be in government again (if it ever wants to be in government again… a point that I’ll return to).
It was that he was right – and I knew it.