Seeking the ‘persuadable Corbyn’ vote

Ian Warren over at Election Data did wonks everywhere a huge favour this week, publishing a load of very thorough polling of the Labour selectorate for free.

There’s been a dearth of these kind of polls since September, partly because it’s expensive and partly because most people with an incentive to commission it would probably prefer to keep the results for themselves. This data also has the advantage of being from YouGov, one of the best in the business and the only company to call the Corbyn surge last summer.

What it gives us is the first real chance to investigate something that has long bugged me: what exactly is the make up of the Corbyn coalition? And, more importantly, which segments are potentially ‘persuadable’ for the moderates and when, and what defines them? (I ask this not as someone with any particular dog in the fight, just someone for who staring at this kind of stuff represents a fun way to waste an evening in the one life I have).

The full data is here and here.

So what does it say?

At a glance things aren’t too promising, either methodologically or from the perspective of anyone vying for a change in the Labour leadership. What you’d ideally do here is ask members to rate how likely they would be to back Corbyn in a future contest on a scale of 1 to 6, then see what demographics make up, say, ratings 3–4. These questions don’t have that kind of question; they largely force members to choose if they approve of Corbyn now or not and want him to stay to 2020 or not.

And within that, as widely reported, there is broad approval for the Labour leader right now, with very little movement since September: 72% approval, 63% wanting him to stay until 2020 and 62% backing him in a mock leadership ballot. Looking across the crossbreaks, almost all major demographics and groups of members show overwhelming support.

So definitely not great for the anti-Corbynistas. But there is a small chink of light for them in question 8: “If the Labour party perform badly in May’s election in Scotland, Wales, London and English councils do you think Jeremy Corbyn should or should not continue as leader of the party and fight the 2020 election?”

In that circumstance, the numbers wanting Corbyn to stay until 2020 drop to 53%. 40% would want him to go either immediately or before the election. 8% are up for grabs either way. Obviously this is still very healthy for Corbyn, but it’s movement, and something worth investigating.

Roughly 30% of Corbyn’s 2015 vote comes into play at that point, thinking he should go before the election (though some of this is plugged by Burnham and Cooper voters thinking he should stay).

So in that circumstance, which groups are flaking away from him?

The only factor that makes a significant difference to how members answered this question is how long they had been a member. In no other cleavage (age, class, location etc) is there any notable change between now and post-May defeat.

In short it would largely be the pre-2015 members breaking away from Corbyn: members who joined under Ed Miliband (‘Ed joiners’), and members who joined pre-2010. Make no mistake: both of these groups overwhelmingly voted for Corbyn in September 2015 and support him now: 55% of ‘Ed joiners’ currently think he should stay until 2020 (66% approve of him), and 50% of pre-2010 members think he should stay (59% of them approve of him).

But both groups see a notable dip in support for Corbyn when the prospect of electoral disaster in May is presented to them. In that circumstance, support among Ed joiners for Corbyn staying until 2020 drops to 41%. Among pre-2010 members it falls to 39%.

By way of comparison, even in the face of electoral disaster in May, 61% of members who joined after May 2015 would still think Corbyn should stay on to 2020, and 89% of members who have joined since September — basically the same proportions of these groups as think that now. They are barely moved.

Ok, so none of this is mind blowing and the movement isn't enormous — but it does give us more than we had before. It puts to rest the idea that the key divide in the Corbyn voter set is age or class or any particular issue per se. If they are going to be prised apart, a key fault line is the point at which they entered the party, and, seemingly, how much it matters whether Labour win elections. It’s a wedge.

This intuitively makes sense. It’s not a left/right thing: the data shows pre-2015 members hold broadly the same left wing views on key policy issues as post-2015 members. But it’s probable longer-term members simply balance these views off against winning elections slightly more evenly. And they are currently waiting to see how things pan out, having convinced themselves the Labour leader could succeed electorally.

Also, they were part of the party when it was in power or seriously competing for it. By contrast, many of the post-2015 members seem to be purer movement types, less interested in the machine or elections. And they are likely to be far more attached to Corbyn than the party itself.

Of course, there’s still lots we don’t know about this pre-2015 group: are there any other characteristics that define them? Who within them are the most persuadable? Why did they vote for Corbyn? Exactly would constitutes ‘performing badly’ in May to them? What voices in the Labour movement influence them most? Etc. These would be interesting questions for further research, some of which would need to be qualitative.

But there are some things the data does tell us about pre-2015 members:

  • They still make up just over half of the membership
  • They overwhelmingly disapprove of Labour MPs publicly criticising Corbyn now, as much as post-2015 members do (so a period of silence for the PLP might be a good idea).
  • They are much less supportive of John McDonnell
  • They are anti-Trident and military intervention but less likely to see these as decisive factors in a leadership election
  • They generally nurse a lot more doubt about Corbyn’s ability to win a general election
  • They tend to overindex on reading the Daily Mirror, as opposed to The Guardian or Independent, compared to the membership as a whole
  • There’s some evidence they tend to more highly prioritise the economy as an issue (though margin of error makes this tight), and less issues like the environment.

I’d also guess (just anecdotally) they are more likely to turn up to CLP meetings and the like.

Again, to be clear, i’m definitely not saying this group is about to defect from Corbyn en masse. What this also doesn't mean is that Labour moderates can just rely on cold calls to electability to shift them. They clearly will need inspiring on values and issues too — far better than any of the other candidates last summer managed. This kind of inspirational agenda is currently something sorely lacking in the anti-Corbyn parts of the PLP.

But I think it is fair to say that this group are far softer than the rest of Jeremy’s vote, even though they make up a big portion of it. They at the very least present an opening for those to the right of Corbyn, then, if they can get their act together. Any switch will start with this group of the membership; any electoral disaster in May marks the point at which a fair number of them begin being open to an argument on leadership change. Any successful moderate leadership bid probably wins a big chunk of this group as their core support, encourages them to get their friends and family to join up, while winning a slither of the post-2015 members on top. Labour moderates’ efforts should therefore go into dissecting, understanding and targeting this group over and above newer members.

That’s my take on it anyway. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Steve Akehurst’s story.