Corbyn and the polls

The most surprising thing about the new YouGov poll in The Times that shows two thirds of Labour Party members still back Jeremy Corbyn is that people are surprised by it. On the face of it, it’s silly to even think that Labour members would turn against the man they elected just two and a half months ago – but there are also a number of good reasons why even more of them (66%) think Mr Corbyn is doing a good job than the number (59%) that actually voted for him.

The first is that much of the froth of politics doesn’t matter. Even politically-attuned members of the public (as you’d expect a member of a political party to be) don’t pay much attention to Twitter arguments, or details of who said what in a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Why should they, they have lives to lead. That means that some of Mr Corbyn’s biggest missteps – his questionable party management for example – may have just gone unnoticed.

The second reason is that the biggest piece of evidence against Mr Corbyn – perhaps the only piece of evidence if politics does not intrude much into your day-to-day life – is that most opinion polls are against him. In the past two days one poll has put Labour 14% behind the Conservatives; another at just 11%. But political opinion pollsters are still suffering reputational damage from their pre-General Election polls, which (mainly) failed completely to match the actual result. It’s no wonder that many people are a bit sceptical about them, particularly five years before the next General Election. And even if they do take polls seriously, opinion polls can be contradictory and confusing: some of Mr Corbyn’s supporters even think that the polls are with him after all (though they are 1) cherry-picking their polls and 2) wrong anyway).

Quite obviously the only real way to test Mr Corbyn’s popularity will be through an election. The first proper test will come very soon, on December 3rd to be precise in Oldham West & Royton. Bigger tests will come with election in the devolved regions, London and English councils in May. But, and this is a third reason why Mr Corbyn’s internal numbers Labour might well be better than expected, a small (but significant) minority of people who voted for him don’t even care about electoral success.

They casted a vote for Mr Corbyn even though they accepted the arguments that he was unelectable. You can view this, as I do, as a piece of reprehensible selfishness, but it is hardly unique to Labour members. The same desire for ideological purity over General Election success periodically afflicts most major political parties in most major democracies. Just ask Donald Trump.

There are only three conceivable ways out of this for Labour. The first is that Labour’s poll rating improve significantly and that they do decently in the forthcoming elections – and Labour may well improve in the polls (the numbers can hardly get worse) and do reasonably well in places like London. If not, then the second scenario may take place, which is that Mr Corbyn’s Parliamentary colleagues try and remove him. This is unlikely to happen so long as Mr Corbyn’s internal party numbers stay strong; and, for all the reasons outlined above, they are likely to.

So the third scenario is perhaps the most likely; that Mr Corbyn will after all lead his party to the General Election of 2020. Given Labour’s history – or lack of it – in deposing party leaders who poll badly, that this scenario surprises people is, on reflection, actually the most surprising thing of all.