Most of Labour’s lost voters are Leavers
This has not been the best week for Jeremy Corbyn. He lost another Shadow Cabinet member and two other frontbench spokesmen, suffered a sizable rebellion on Europe (whereas, unlike one upon a time, the Tories presented an almost united front), prompting several thousand members to resign; yesterday’s YouGov poll confirmed that the Conservatives’ lead remains in the mid-teens, and Labour suffered a devastating local by-election loss in Rotherham, which the Lib Dems took on a 38% swing.
That last item, which ought really to be the most trivial – all sorts of odd things can happen in local by-elections, particularly where there are peculiar local issues – might all the same have a particularly bitter taste.
Rotherham was a strongly Leave area in the EU referendum, voting more than 2:1 for Brexit. That Labour should lose the seat not to UKIP, who started a clear second and whose own share was more than halved, but to the arch-Remain Lib Dems is testament to the fact that Brexit is not all-consuming as a divide (in fact, in a simultaneous by-election in a different Rotherham ward, Labour gained the seat from UKIP).
That’s unfortunate for Corbyn because his position on Brexit is a good deal closer to the sort of voter that Labour’s lost since 2015, not just in Rotherham and Sunderland but across the country.
The ICM poll taken on 20-22 Jan gives good evidence of this. 37% of Labour’s 2015 vote supported Leave, as against only 32% of their current voters. We can’t calculate a precise figure because there’s churn so it’s not possible to assume that simply subtracting the current base from that at the election will give us the deserters. Even so, if we take that as representative of the net change, it implies that the lost voters split 58/42 for Leave.
Yesterday’s YouGov paints much the same picture. Unlike ICM, YouGov don’t release the raw figures for each question and answer, nor is there a specific question on how people voted at the referendum but they do ask if people think the decision to leave was right, and the headline figures there mirror the referendum closely (albeit that there’s a small amount of churn). 34% of their 2015 support think it was right to leave but only 29% of their current voters do – the same 5% difference ICM report, which again implies that the lost voters are Leave-heavy and very probably in a Leave majority.
Corbyn ought to be ideally placed to attract these voters back. He’s certainly more in tune with them than his parliamentary party is, or than his members are. His strategy of respecting the public’s Leave vote while trying to score tactical victories in parliament is exactly the one that an opposition should be following. It will only work, however, if he can bridge the gap between the parliamentary and London Remain wing and the Leavers in the country. The risk is that he fails to satisfy either and that the voters, who probably left over other issues, remain detached from their former party.