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In a recent LabourList article, the website’s editor Sienna Rodgers wrote:
"‘Do you want to win the next election or do you want to keep the Labour Party left-wing?’ This is the dividing line being presented in many of the arguments at local party nomination meetings, according to reports"Rodgers’ summary is correct. At present, many Labour members are presenting the 2020 leadership contest as a choice between pragmatic electability with Keir Starmer or principled policies with Rebecca Long-Bailey. But, as I will explain in this article, this is not the choice that we face. Long-Bailey, far from being an electoral disaster in the making, is in fact the most electable candidate standing for the leadership. Her policies are popular, she alone has the credibility to win back Leave voters, most voters have not yet made up their minds about her, and the ones that do know about her associate her with the popular parts of Corbynism – not the unpopular parts.
Let’s examine each of these arguments in turn.
Our policies are popular
It is often argued that Labour’s policies were unpopular, and that the party lost the 2019 election because it supported ideas like public ownership of public services. But Labour’s policies were popular, and they hardly featured when voters were asked to list their reasons for not voting Labour in 2019.
The table below shows the results of a BMG Research poll, conducted after the general election, which asked voters to express their opinions of some Labour Party policies. As you can see, all of the policies listed are supported by the electorate; even its policies to raise taxes on the rich, increase corporation tax and abolish tuition fees (which were often criticised by some opponents of Corbyn) are popular with the voters.
But what about other policies, like the Green New Deal? The most recent polling (from November) shows that voters also support the Green New Deal by a 39pt margin.
Lord Andrew Adonis, Labour’s 2019 manifesto was “a Christmas tree of irrelevant and unaffordable commitments, including mass nationalisation and free broadband, which were never taken seriously”. But the manifesto was not the reason for our defeat.
The chart below shows the top reasons given for voting Conservative by voters who supported Labour in 2017 and the Conservatives in 2019. The poll was conducted by YouGov. As you can see, policies are barely mentioned. Even the leadership is only mentioned by 27% of respondents. Instead, the top result is clearly Labour’s Brexit policy – which Starmer was responsible for.
all the candidates have committed to supporting Labour’s policies of public ownership, which is very good to see. But only Long-Bailey is firmly in favour of all of Labour’s popular policies.
Long-Bailey’s policies of public ownership and a Green New Deal are popular. The only way to guarantee that Labour keeps these popular and electable policies, especially the Green New Deal, is to vote for Rebecca Long-Bailey.
Starmer cannot win back Leave voters
As I have argued in a previous article, Labour lost in 2019 because it lost millions of Leave voters. I won’t repeat the entire article here, but the key facts are:
- There was a 1% swing to Labour amongst Remainers, and an 11% swing to the Tories amongst Leavers.
- Of the 54 seats that Labour lost to the Tories, 52 voted Leave in 2016.
- The more pro-Leave that a Labour seat was, the bigger the swing to the Tories in 2019.
- Even if we win back all of the Remainers that we lost, the Tories will still win a majority.
- Of the 80 seats that the Tories won in 2019 and that Labour must win in 2024, 67 voted Leave.
Amongst Leave voters, Keir Starmer’s policy of a second referendum was overwhelmingly unpopular. 81% of Leave voters told DeltaPollUK in December that they opposed a second EU referendum, whilst 75% of Leave voters told Opinium in January 2020 that they felt negatively about Labour’s Brexit strategy. The idea that Starmer, who wrote Labour’s Brexit policy, can win back Leave voters is simply not believable. His role in writing that second referendum policy, and his endless attempts to turn Labour into a Remain party, will be mentioned every day for the next four years.
But how do we know that voters will even associate Starmer with that policy? The answer is simple: they already do.
In early January, Opinium asked voters to select which leadership candidate they most associated with Labour’s Brexit strategy. Amongst Leave voters, 17% associated Starmer with Labour’s Brexit policy, almost twice as many as those who associated Long-Bailey with that policy (9%).
48% of voters still support. Labour can only win with a Leader who seeks to appeal to a wide group of working people, whatever their Brexit viewpoint was in 2016.
Voters have not yet made up their minds about the candidates
Many Labour members who prioritise electability have cited Ipsos MORI’s recent poll of voters, in which voters described how favourably they felt towards particular leadership candidates. In that poll, Keir Starmer had a net favourability rating of +5, Lisa Nandy had a net rating of -1, Emily Thornberry had a net rating of -11, and Rebecca Long-Bailey had a net rating of -15.
But these “net” figures are not particularly informative. Starmer’s total approval figure is a mere 23%; for comparison, Jeremy Corbyn’s average approval rating in December was 25%. Yes, Starmer's disapproval rating is low as well (18%) but this simply reflects the fact that most voters have no idea who the leadership candidates are.
As you can see, the most significant result is not the ‘net’ rating, but the fact that a clear majority of voters (60% on average) do not know anything about the candidates.
I would therefore argue that voting for a candidate on the basis of what their approval ratings are before they are even elected is somewhat premature. As Jeremy himself once said: things can, and will, change.
Indeed, even the mere fact of winning a leadership election can change a person’s approval ratings. In July 2019, just before Boris Johnson was elected as Conservative Party leader, his net approval rating with YouGov was -27pts (31% favourable, 58% unfavourable). Yet in August 2019, his net approval rating with YouGov had changed to -8pts (36% favourable, 44% unfavourable). If the Conservatives had rejected Boris Johnson on the basis that he had a low approval rating, they would have been rejecting the candidate who would go on to win a landslide majority just a few months later.
In short, voters have not yet made up their minds about the candidates; approval ratings can, and will, change; and Keir Starmer’s positive approval rating is the result of just 23% of voters approving of him (fewer than approved of Corbyn in December). To dismiss Long-Bailey as unelectable on the basis of such numbers would be to misunderstand the statistical evidence.
RLB is associated with the popular aspects of Corbynism
We have already seen that Labour’s policies, and its policies of public ownership in particular, are popular. We have also seen that voters associate Keir Starmer with Labour’s Brexit policy, which was overwhelmingly unpopular amongst Leave voters.
But do voters associate Long-Bailey with the policies that she helped to write? More importantly, do they actually associate her with Jeremy Corbyn?
The graph below shows the results of an Opinium in January which asked voters to select the leadership candidate that they most associated with Corbyn. As you can see, Long-Bailey was selected by the most respondents – but only 25% of respondents selected her, with almost as many selecting her opponents (19%) and far more selecting “don’t know” (41%).
So what about Labour’s policies and manifesto? The graph below shows the results of an Opinium poll in January which asked voters to select the candidate that they most associated with Labour’s manifesto pledges, as well as who they would associate with Labour’s nationalisation policies. As you can see, Long-Bailey is the top choice for voters in both cases.
Electability is a difficult word to define. After all, most definitions effectively boil down to a tautology: people often tell me that the electable candidate is the candidate who is most likely to be elected. And when I ask them why their candidate is most likely to be elected, they say it’s because they’re electable! So I’ll try and define it here.
To me, an electable candidate is a candidate that can win an election – not one who definitely will, because we can’t see the future, but one who would not make it impossible for Labour to win.
Rebecca Long-Bailey is that person. She is not associated with the unpopular parts of Corbynism, but she is associated with the popular parts. Voters have not yet made up their minds about her, which gives her the chance to make a good first impression. And she is not associated with a Brexit policy that was overwhelmingly unpopular with the voters that we need to win (Leave voters).
Keir Starmer seems like a reasonably progressive politician. But his association with our Brexit policy and Brexit strategy sadly makes him entirely unelectable in 2024. If we want to win back the 52 pro-Leave seats that we lost in 2019, as well as dozens of pro-Leave seats that the Conservatives won, we simply cannot elect a Leader that Leave voters associate with Remain.
Winning in 2024 requires a Leader that is competent, smart, capable and supportive of Labour’s socialist policies. It requires a Leader that Leave voters will not automatically associate with a Brexit policy that they overwhelmingly dislike. And it requires a Leader who will look forward to the 2020s, not backwards to the failed centre-left politics of Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband (who failed to win in 2010 or 2015).
That electable leader is not Keir Starmer. It is Rebecca Long-Bailey.