Corbyn is safe for now argues Keiran Pedley but with his popularity among Labour members falling and Brexit on the horizon he is unlikely to lead Labour into a General Election.
Those of you watching Peston yesterday will know that YouGov has a new poll of Labour members out courtesy of Ian Warren of Election Data. 1,096 Labour members were interviewed last week (27 Feb – 3 Mar) and here are some of the key numbers.
The first notable data finding was the one shared by Allegra Stratton on Peston yesterday, which showed Corbyn’s approval rating among Labour members taking a significant hit. The majority of members (54%) still approve of Corbyn’s leadership but this is down 18 points from February last year and more than one in three now disapprove (23% strongly).
Unsurprisingly, there is a sharp divide in opinion between pre Corbyn members (62% disapprove) and those joining since Corbyn became leader (68% approve). However, it is notable that Corbyn draws strong support from Labour women (61% approve), younger members (56% of 18-39s approve) and perhaps controversially, Labour Leave voters (71% approve). However, I note with interest that opinion in London in split (44% approve and 45% disapprove) and his strongest regional support comes from the Midlands / Wales (61%) which is likely netted together due to low sample size.
So some interesting data showing Corbyn’s support taking a hit and also where it comes from but what does it mean for Corbyn’s future as leader?
One finding that understandably got people a bit excited yesterday was the one above that asked whether or not Jeremy Corbyn should fight the next General Election as Labour leader. For the first time, less than half of Labour members say that he should (44%). Another question (below) asked Labour members whether they would vote Corbyn again in a hypothetical leadership contest and it showed as many members saying they definitely wouldn’t as definitely would.
These figures will lead some to speculate that Corbyn’s days are numbered but I am not that excited by them. Whilst it is significant that Corbyn’s support has taken a hit there has been no great shift in the number that think he should stand down now (up just one point). What we seem to be seeing is a wavering in support rather than a consolidation against him. I suggest that this nuance is actually quite important.
Any move against Corbyn now would probably harden support again in favour of him. I would expect, for example, that a significant number of the 11% above that say they ‘probably wouldn’t vote for him but might’ would actually do so if he were challenged again. That would take Corbyn’s support to 63% which is pretty much in line with what he got versus Owen Smith last year.
This idea is only reinforced when we look at some hypothetical polling on different candidates. As part of the poll, YouGov asked respondents who they would consider voting for and who they would likely end up voting for with or without Corbyn on the ballot. A long list was put forward but I have chosen to focus on the frontrunners for simplicity. Before we delve too deeply into the numbers, I should acknowledge that this sort of poll question is difficult to interpret. It doesn’t reflect the reality of what a Labour leadership contest would look like but it does give us some sense of the viability of different candidates among Labour members.
So what to make of these results? The first thing to say is that if Corbyn is on the ballot he probably wins again right now for the reasons I mention above. Interestingly though, there does seem to be a pattern emerging of his ‘core’ support among Labour members being around 35-40%. 36% would definitely vote for him and 38% choose him in the above poll. However, the second thing to say is that if he isn’t on the ballot then things are wide open. Corbyn supporters don’t just go to McDonnell or someone else. We see this clearly if we look at the results with Corbyn not on the ballot but cut by levels of support for Corbyn. This helps us understand what a post Corbyn world might look like.
Two things strike me from these numbers. The first is that if we add up the ‘Corbyn candidates’ and ‘non Corbyn candidates’ (crude and subjective I know) the membership is pretty evenly split although the ‘swings’ lean towards ‘Corbyn candidates’. Perhaps the Labour membership is more committed to Jeremy Corbyn the man than ‘Corbynism’ itself? The second is how Clive Lewis, often touted as a successor, doesn’t really have a base in the membership. The ‘swing’ vote likes him a bit but committed supporters and opponents of Corbyn not so much. Factor in his lack of an obvious parliamentary base and you question how viable he really is. Emily Thornberry seems better placed to inherit the Corbyn mantle assuming McDonnell doesn’t stand whilst Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper and Keir Starmer all look like viable candidates from the party’s right. Cooper probably wouldn’t run again but her support in the PLP means you cannot discount her.
Don’t assume a Corbynite takes over. Brexit could be ‘Corbyn’s Iraq’
Looking at these numbers overall, Corbyn’s popularity among Labour members has clearly taken a hit but it is also clear that challenging him now would only reinforce his leadership. Whether that will still be true a year from now is less clear. As Brexit gathers pace we might expect his popularity to diminish further. Elsewhere in the poll, we find that 66% think Brexit is the most important issue facing the country, 53% think he has handled it badly so far and 68% of members would back a second referendum on EU membership. If Corbyn’s popularity falls further by next year and a genuine pro-European alternative candidate emerges then he could well be in trouble.
Of course the key questions are ‘who is that alternative’ and ‘in what circumstances does Corbyn go?’ Those are the million dollar questions and we cannot ‘know’ the answers. Nevertheless, my hunch is he won’t lead Labour into 2020 (members increasingly don’t expect him to) and Brexit will open the door for alternative leaders to emerge. Personally, I am still watching Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy but don’t be surprised if at some point in the future we see Chuka Umunna face Emily Thornberry in a leadership contest and Umunna wins. In reality though, Labour’s future will belong to whoever has the guts to seize it. With this weekend’s poll, we can begin to see how that future might not involve Jeremy Corbyn as leader or Corbynism at all.
Keiran Pedley tweets about polling and public opinion at @keiranpedley and presents the PB/Polling Matters podcast. Listen to the latest episode on Copeland, Stoke and what makes a good Prime Minister below.