Corbyn will win but he is popular with the wrong people at the wrong time for the wrong reasons

Corbyn will win but he is popular with the wrong people at the wrong time for the wrong reasons


Surfing a wave of superficial attractiveness can only get so far

There is no good reason for believing that Jeremy Corbyn is not going to win the Labour leadership. The polls have all pointed heavily in that direction, constituency nominations have favoured him ahead of his rivals, union nominations (and organisation) will count for even more, and the late and huge surge of voters joining up to take part cannot rationally be explained other than as an active endorsement of the veteran left winger.

Furthermore, for the moment, he is popular. His meetings have attracted crowds so big they wouldn’t fit in the venues. The Survation poll for TSSA released today indicated that the policies he espouses have a resonance with a sizable section of the population, and that he personally is seen as more ‘in touch’, more trustworthy, more intelligent and more likeable than all three of his opponents. He’s believed to care more about the British people and expected to hold David Cameron to account better than Burnham, Cooper or Kendal.

All of which goes to reinforce the momentum behind him. And all of which is largely irrelevant. The poll was based on the public’s view of four one-minute clips of the candidates on the Andrew Marr show. While these were aimed at being balanced – and they probably are a fair representation of the four – they are also a trivially short snapshot of who they are and what they stand for.

The fact is that the Leader of the Opposition has a lot of roles to perform. He is the executive chairman of his party; he not only heads the opposition to the government but heads the official alternative government; he distributes patronage, within parliament and way beyond it; he leads on policy formation; he performs ceremonial duties; he has six questions a week at PMQs; he leads his party’s media campaign; his sign-off is needed on campaign strategy, on internal organisation and any number of other things; his speech is the highlight of the party conference – and so it goes on. Some of these are more important than others but one minute on Marr gives but the briefest hint as to how well they’d do any of them.

The problem for Corbyn is that he has virtually no experience at them and hasn’t been inclined to gain any. Unlike some left-wingers, such as Dennis Skinner, he hasn’t even been a member of Labour’s NEC. He may surprise in some areas but most successful party leaders have spent years gathering the skills needed, both through practice and close observation. Corbyn hasn’t had the chance to do either.

That’s not all bad – he won’t look the polished politician and that alone brings an interesting challenge to Cameron in how to handle him – but there is a reason that pole-climbing politicians develop those skills: they’re effective. Furthermore, if there is one political skill that he’s developed over his time in the Commons, it’s rebelliousness: between 2005 and 2010, he defied the Labour government’s whip 238 times. How the PLP reacts to such a leader will of itself be interesting but even more interesting will be whether Corbyn himself can find the discipline that collective responsibility demands. The public, we are told, doesn’t respond well to split parties despite telling pollsters that they also dislike an excess of control.

And what of the policies? This, after all, is what seems to be driving Corbyn’s popularity. Survation does indicate that among the public in general, and Labour voters in particular, his state-centric approach is out of the mainstream, not the lunatic fringe.

    However, this is one area where I would take issue with the poll, where the wording is critically important and slanted towards Corbyn, in that it repeatedly asks the public if they would like more without being asked about the cost.

Suppose the question asking respondents how much they agree with:

    Removing all privatisation from the NHS to make it completely publicly run

Had instead been worded:

    The NHS should use the most effective provider as long as the care remains free at the point of delivery to patients

That’s essentially the same question but loaded the other way, and I’ve no doubt that it would produce a markedly different response.

Much the same could be done with the other questions. And this is the point. Corbyn’s ideas have not been taken on by the other candidates (perhaps because they agree with some and would find themselves sat alongside the Tories on all). Consequently, Corbyn has won the policy debate by default. Ideas that sound good in isolation will fall apart once subjected to serious scrutiny.

Finally, there’s the question of his past and his associations; again, something of which few will yet be aware. This is where Corbyn really stands out as on the left, more so than, say, Michael Foot. Foot was a firm supporter of democracy and opponent of dictators; Corbyn has associated with rather too many people and opinions that polite politics regards as beyond the pale. The Survation / TSSA was designed in part to tease out whether Labour’s UKIP defectors could be brought back on board but UKIP voters tend to be proudly patriotic. Even if they agree on domestic policy, it’s hard to see them overcoming the barrier that his views on immigration and foreign policy would create. On the contrary: those views could easily push considerably more of Labour’s one-time core vote towards UKIP.

Put simply, Corbyn’s attraction is superficial. His campaign has been superficial because although his campaign has led on policy, those policies themselves are superficial. But they’re enough to attract positive reviews now, not least because no-one has dared counter them. That won’t last. But it will last long enough.

David Herdson

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