Labour Leadership 2: The Unelectability of Corbyn
Last week, I wrote about how the “Jeremy Corbyn is a decent guy” trope does not bear any real scrutiny, and that in fact his actions and beliefs should disqualify him from being Labour leader.
I’m going to put all of that to one side today, and instead try and answer a different question. Could Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, win a General Election?
To get an idea, we can start by looking at electoral performance over Corbyn’s ten months in charge to date. I will consider two examples; Labour’s performance in May’s local elections, and also the results of four parliamentary by-elections.
There has been much debate as to whether this year’s local elections represented a good or bad result for Labour. A lot of this comes from the fact that people are not using proper benchmarks by which to judge.
For example, following May’s results, both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell claimed it as a positive that Labour had achieved a swing in the vote compared with the General Election a year previously.
Let’s set our benchmarks properly. Oppositions always perform well in local elections. We can compare this movement of 7.5% to other outcomes of local elections held one year after a General:
Oh dear. So the movement of 7.5% from Tory to Labour that was claimed as positive actually represents the second-worst performance by any opposition since the 1980’s. Only William Hague fared worse, a year into thirteen years of Labour government.
Claims that Corbyn “embarrassed his critics” by losing council seats are facile, even on their own terms; there was a 3% swing towards the Tories compared with when the seats were last fought, in 2012. Just because some pundits thought Labour might lose 200 seats, it doesn’t mean that “only” losing eighteen becomes a good result.
But what can we take from this? Can local election results tell us anything about General Election prospects? Well, yes they can, actually. Matt Singh has demonstrated the following relationship:
That 1% Labour lead in May’s elections translates to the Conservatives having a 10–12% advantage at the next General Election.
May’s results were desperately poor. They point to an increased Conservative majority.
Away from the local elections, here’s Liam Young boasting that Corbyn’s Labour has won every parliamentary by-election. It’s true. Labour increased its share of the vote by 8.7% in Tooting, 7.5% in Oldham West and Royton, 5.9% in Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, and saw its share fall by 0.3% in Ogmore.
Obviously this is better than losing elections, but is this set of results good enough? Oppositions usually improve their vote share, after all. Again, let’s apply appropriate benchmarks at this point. We can compare these results with similar seats Ed Miliband’s Labour fought.
Between 2010 and 2015, under Miliband, Labour increased its vote share in Labour-held seats at by-elections by 16.4% (Manchester Central), 14.6% (Middlesbrough), 13.5% (Barnsley Central), 12.2% (Leicester South), 11.2% (Wythenshawe), 10.8% (Feltham & Heston), and 10.2% (Oldham East).
All of these easily outstrip Labour’s best performance in this parliament to date.
Overall, Corbyn’s performance is to increase Labour vote share in Labour held seats by an average of 5.4%. The comparable number for Miliband? 8.7%. And we all know how Ed’s reign ended.
We are clearly performing worse than under Ed Miliband.
Finally, before we move away from numbers, some recent polling from ICM showed the Tories with a ten point lead over Labour, which increased to fifteen points when people were asked how they would vote in a future General Election, assuming the same party leaders as now. The Independent found that a third of Labour voters think Theresa May would be a better Prime Minister than Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s personal ratings have dropped to -41%.
Every light on the electoral dashboard is flashing.
If you continue to support Jeremy Corbyn, you therefore have to believe that, should he win the election, he will be able to improve significantly, head the party strongly and effectively, get the 81% of MP’s who voted no confidence back onside, and drive Labour to victory.
I don’t understand how anybody could possibly think that.
Stories abound of Corbyn’s incompetence, his lack of direction, lack of leadership ability, and his habit of undermining colleagues.
Richard Murphy, an economist who was initially very well disposed to the Corbyn project, has recently written a blog where he outlines his frustrations at not being able to make a difference; he criticises the leadership team’s lack of conviction, inclination to offer nothing more than vague words, inability to offer direction, and lack of vision. His piece is an extraordinary indictment of the leadership’s failings.
He’s not alone. Lilian Greenwood gave a speech about how Corbyn undermined her by discussing his inclination to drop support for HS2 in an interview, without asking or informing her, after she had put huge amounts of effort into working on that project. And he did this more than once.
Heidi Alexander, the former shadow health secretary, was cut out of secret NHS meetings set up by John McDonnell, and only found out by chance. She also had to stage a sit-in outside Corbyn’s office in order to get a steer from him in terms of the party’s health policy.
Whilst undergoing cancer treatment, Thangam Debonnaire was promoted to shadow arts and culture minister by Corbyn, before he sacked her a day later, without telling her on either occasion. Later, Debonnaire was reinstated, only to find it extremely difficult to get any time with him, nor decisions from him.
Danny Blanchflower, another former economics adviser, now complains that Corbyn offers no policies, only empty words like “let’s stop austerity & lower inequality”. Easy to say the words, far harder to construct a set of policies to make that a reality.
These are all people who have tried hard to contribute to Corbyn’s Labour, and are now at the end of their tether.
It goes on. Sources in Corbyn’s office complain his team is good at nothing except paranoia. A Vice documentary showed Corbyn being unwilling to attack Cameron about Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation. Corbyn’s EU campaign was so lacklustre that many Labour voters did not even know which side he was on.
Even if you strip away his terrible views on foreign policy, even if you ignore the polling and the election results, he is clearly a poor, chaotic, disorganised, disinterested, demotivating, incompetent leader, who has upset many of his colleagues.
And if you’re at this point and still think Corbyn is the right choice for Labour, consider this.
I wrote last time about Corbyn’s Stop The War Coalition calling on jihadists to kill British soldiers in Iraq. If Jeremy Corbyn leads Labour into a General Election, you can guarantee that this will be brought up. Even if you regard this as a “smear” against Corbyn (it isn’t), he will be asked to defend his position on this. He will be asked to explain why he supported an organisation that made such a statement. And Labour will lose in a landslide.
Labour faces a struggle, whoever the leader is. Hugely difficult questions confront the party. How can we square the need to support the poorest with the need to convince the electorate that we can be fiscally responsible? How can we reconcile support for immigration in most of the party with a traditional support base that is significantly less in favour? What should we do in a post-Brexit world? How can we win back Scotland, and avoid losing Wales? Can we rebuild our “big tent”?
None of this is easy. But Corbyn hasn’t even tried. His anti-austerity politics is little more than rhetoric. He surrounds himself only with people who agree with him, running from rally to rally, rather than attempting to take his message to people that have turned away from our party. He is a protest politician, trapped in the body of a frontbencher.
He has been dealt a tough hand, and he has responded by simply chucking his cards in the bin.
This matters. A Labour government matters. And we are currently led by someone who is just not capable or willing to put in the hard work to get us into power.
I understand that many Labour members appreciate his vocal, uncompromising opposition to austerity.
But if the cost of that is a deeply immoral foreign policy, catastrophic leadership, and a massive Conservative majority, honestly, is it really worth it?