His followers are voting for the leader they like, not one that can win electionsby Peter Kellner / August 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Opinion polls often produce messy, even contradictory, results. That’s because public opinion is often messy and contradictory. Sometimes, however, poll findings tell us something with great clarity. YouGov’s latest survey of Labour’s leadership election is such a poll: it proves beyond doubt a proposition recently advanced by David Runciman, one of Britain’s best political scientists, in the London Review of Books.
Runciman distinguished between “instrumental” and “expressive” choices. He wrote: “If voting is instrumental then it’s presumed that voters are primarily motivated by the results they hope to achieve: leaders and parties who can deliver real benefits. If it’s expressive then voters are more interested in signalling who they are and what they value.”
Runciman postulated that Corbyn is attracting “expressive” support: people with a vote in the leadership election like him and identify with him, whereas supporters of his rivals attract “instrumental” support from people whose main concern is to pick a leader who can take Labour back into government.
Runciman is right. Forget the distraction about entryism by far left groups; Corbyn is winning because most of Labour’s selectorate are deciding their vote on expressive rather than instrumental grounds. We asked 1,411 people with a vote in the leadership election to assess the personal qualities of each of the four candidates, asking first about positive qualities and then about negative ones (see table at the bottom).
The figures for the four main “expressive” qualities are extraordinary. Most of the people we questioned say Corbyn is principled, honest, courageous, and “shares my political outlook.” None of the other candidates come close. On the other hand, only minorities credit Corbyn with the two main instrumental characteristics, competence and “likely to lead Labour to victory at the next general election”. Both Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have far higher competence ratings.
On electability, Corbyn, Burnham and Cooper have similar figures—between 21 per cent and 26 per cent. This provides a clue to what is happening: there is little optimism about Labour’s electoral prospects. It’s not that Burnham and Cooper are seen as vote-losers (Corbyn has a far higher vote-losing rating when we look at the figures for negative qualities); rather, it’s that the context for this leadership election is vastly different from that in 1994, when Tony Blair was elected leader. Then, Labour party members were desperate for a return to government, and Blair was seen, rightly, as a massive vote-winner.
Today, none of the candidates look to Labour’s selectorate as a sure-fire election-winner. And if none of them are seen as a Prime Minister in waiting, the second instrumental quality, competence, matters less. These perceptions remove the main cost of casting an expressive vote—the fear that the outcome would deprive Labour of an election victory that it would otherwise be fairly sure to secure. If the selectorate concludes that Labour’s prospects are not that great, whoever leads the party, why not simply back the candidate they like most? That, it seems, is precisely what most of Labour’s selectorate plan to do.