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Could Labour win the next general election with Jeremy Corbyn as leader? Conventional wisdom says: of course not. But three months ago, conventional wisdom mocked the idea that he could ever become leader. We should not dismiss the thought of Prime Minister Corbyn out of hand. This month’s YouGov research for Prospect examines two propositions that are central to Corbyn’s appeal: that Labour needs to reconnect with its working class roots; and that it is possible for the party to gain votes by moving to the left.
First, Labour’s roots. Manual workers and their families (the normal definition of working class) once dominated its vote. In the early 70s, the party had the backing of 10m of them, compared with two million of the middle class. Two thirds of all voters lived in working-class households.
Today, the balance is very different. Britain now has seven million more middle-class than working-class electors—and the working class is not just smaller but different. The decline of industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding and steelmaking, and the falling numbers of production-line factories, has battered working-class culture and institutions, notably trade unions. Labour’s hold on working-class voters has weakened. At the last two general elections, the party won more middle-class than working-class votes.
When Labour was founded a century ago, its main concern was the plight of working-class families whose incomes depended on private sector employers—a clear majority of Britain’s electorate. Now they comprise less than one voter in five. Today’s “working-class” voter is more likely to work for the public sector or a not-for-profit employer.
This does not mean abandoning the aim of reviving Labour’s working-class roots; it does mean redefining the task. Relatively few voters would be affected by new laws to protect exploited employees from bad private sector employers. More relevant would be new ways to resolve conflicts between workers who provide public services and those who rely on them (a conflict familiar to anyone who’s experienced a London tube strike). This means acknowledging the awkward truth that those who supply public sector services also use them.
It also means expanding the definition of working class, to include such white-collar workers as teachers, nurses, secretaries, bank clerks and so on. Corbyn ought to appeal to them, and for a simple reason: middle-class voters comprise the vast majority of the electorate in this year’s party leadership election. Of the party members on YouGov’s panel, there are three times as many public sector workers, and six times as many university graduates, as there are members holding down manual jobs in the private sector. Corbyn himself is fairly typical. He didn’t attend university, but he was a grammar school boy who worked for a public sector trade union before becoming an MP.
The challenge for Labour’s next leader is also an opportunity. A recent YouGov survey of voters supplied a list of eight groups of people, and asked respondents to pick two that the government should help. They were also asked which groups the two main parties actually wanted to help. The most popular cause is “ordinary working people”—76 per cent want them to be helped. But only 39 per cent think they are one of Labour’s main concerns, not much greater than the 29 per cent who think the Conservatives care for them.
The conclusion is clear: Labour will fail if it makes its central concern the fight against bad companies. But it has a huge opportunity to win votes if it can champion workers of all kinds: public as well as private sector, white collar as well as blue collar. This means reconciling conflicts, of which the biggest is between voter resistance to higher taxes and the demand of public sector workers to increase pay and numbers.
Ideology would present a Corbyn-led Labour Party with a tougher challenge. Six out of 10 Labour Party members say they are “very” or “fairly” left wing. This compares with 32 per cent of people who voted Labour in May and just 15 per cent of the electorate as a whole. Consider the two million people who voted Labour in 2010 but not 2015. If Labour can’t win even them back, it is doomed. Yet among this group only 18 per cent place themselves firmly on the left. Far more, 52 per cent, say they are “centre” or “slightly” right or left of centre. To become Prime Minister, Corbyn needs to reach beyond his supporters in the current leadership contest and appeal to millions at the centre of the political spectrum.
That said, people’s views on specific issues often defy left-right analysis. Most voters, including Conservatives, want Britain’s railways returned to public ownership. The problem is that people do not judge policies in isolation. When Ed Miliband proposed curbing energy prices and a rise in the minimum wage, voters liked the message but distrusted the messenger. They worried that these policies might lead to a more left-wing Britain. When David Cameron embraced the same causes, voters reacted more positively, for they did not think these were the thin end of a far-left wedge. Corbyn’s support for policies such as railway nationalisation will backfire if voters fear that further ideologically-driven policies will follow.
That is not all. On three big issues, Corbyn and Labour Party members hold very different views from the wider electorate, including Labour voters. He, and Labour’s electorate, oppose the £20,000 cap on welfare benefits, and the limitation of child tax credits to two children. Most other people, including Labour voters, back both curbs. Second, most Labour voters are far more critical of immigration than Corbyn and his supporters. Third, other YouGov research has found that voters fear the deficit more than cuts in public services. Corbyn’s promises of higher spending, even on popular causes, will repel voters if they fear that Britain will go bust as a result.
In the end, the prospects for a Corbyn-led Labour Party at the next general election depend on him establishing his credibility on a number of fronts: creating a broad appeal to “working families” of all kinds in a post-industrial world; repelling charges that he is a dangerous left-winger; reassuring voters who fear immigration and resent the size of Britain’s welfare bill; and persuading enough voters that a Corbyn government would run the economy competently.
I don’t think he has the remotest chance of doing any of these things. We, and he, should not mistake the enthusiasm of around 300,000 party supporters for a change in the national zeitgeist. However, Labour could do deceptively well in polls, by-elections, European and local elections in the next three or four years. Corbyn’s Labour could harness the protest vote, as the Lib Dems did for decades, and the Social Democratic Party did in the 80s. Their problem was that, like the UK Independence Party, mid-term triumphs did not become general election success.
This is bad news for Labour MPs who hate the idea of Corbyn as their leader, and are hoping for early evidence that he is a vote-loser. This would give them a reason to replace him with a more electable leader well before the next election. If I am right (and, yes, I am well aware that we pollsters and pundits are far from infallible), then it may not be until 2020 that it becomes clear that Corbyn’s appeal as a protest leader will fail to translate into victory at a general election.
Corbyn’s internal opponents should not rely on him doing so badly as leader in the next year or two that he will have to quit. They may need a different and far more dramatic Plan B. The only way to escape his orbit may be for them to split the party.
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