Corbyn, the electorate and what’s in between
How can the divergence between the popularity of Labour policies and the party’s performance at the polls be explained?
On 8 June this year, there will be a general election in Britain – an election that is arguably one of the most important events in contemporary European history. The reasons for this significance are manifold, and so are the factors that will determine its outcome. One such factor is the type of governance and the policies that the two competing parties promise to implement, an aspect that is especially weighty in view of the upcoming negotiations to leave the European Union, but also of a number of other domestic and foreign issues.
While the differences in style and content between political parties have tended to vary only slightly over the past few decades, resulting in a solid political consensus, there are now two very clear alternatives: the governing Conservatives wish to pursue what since the 1980s has become the aforementioned unanimity, whereas Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party proposes a range of different policies and style of government, which he sums up as “a new kind of politics”.
Although the reliability of opinion polls – following their erroneous predictions of the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential elections in the US last year – has been questioned, it seems safe to say that pollsters’ assessment of Labour’s performance next month is in sync with the public mood (recent surveys put Labour between 9 and 20 points behind the Tories).
This appears odd, given that firstly, the current government is not popular among the bulk of the population, and that secondly, when asked about individual policies, the majority of voters support Labour programmes – often by a huge margin. This raises the question: if so many voters support what Corbyn stands for – why is it that his party is not predicted to win by a landslide?
Even before the party’s draft manifesto was leaked recently, we had a pretty good idea of what Labour stands for under Corbyn’s leadership. Now, before we consider the possible reasons for the above conundrum, let’s have a brief look at some of the key areas in question:
A Labour government would reverse the Railway Act of 1993, making all railways run publicly once current franchises have expired; it would furthermore renationalise Royal Mail and parts of the energy market as well as water supplies. It would also halt the privatisation of the National Health Service.
A central point of a Corbyn-led government would be to end austerity and to fund public services and social care by raising taxes on the country’s highest earners. This would include a clampdown on tax avoidance and evasion.
Revisions of recent government policies would include the complete abolition of tuition fees, the reintroduction of maintenance grants and free school meals for all primary school children. Significantly, Labour would set up a National Education Service, modelled on the NHS, guaranteeing free education for everyone, “from cradle to grave”.
4. Health and social matters
In accordance with Labour’s bid to end austerity, hospital closures would be ended immediately, and there would be no limit on NHS staff pay rises, while the institution itself would receive an annual extra £6 billion. 10.000 new police officers would be appointed, reversing the current government’s reduction of police forces.
Popular policies advocated by an unpopular leader
There are, of course, plenty more, but what most of these proposals have in common is the fact that as a whole, they are supported by the majority of the population (and not infrequently by Conservative voters). The public’s support for individual policies ranges from an immense 78% (to retain the ban on fox hunting) to a marginal 36% for backing Labour’s plan to give Parliament a vote on the final departure deal reached with the EU (which 35% reject). Have a look at surveys conducted over the past couple of years, and it becomes clear that in point of fact, the majority of voters support Labour.
Some of the popularity of these programmes may come from voters’ instinctive support of a traditional Labour value, according to which not every aspect of public life is suitable for profit-making: things that we all depend on, such as transport, water or police forces, are best managed for their own sake, not by organisations whose primary interest is making money. The ideas behind Labour’s manifesto are anything but new; they have been commonplace and uncontroversial in Britain and throughout the world for a long time, and in many cases were founded upon the idea of public ownership – such as Aneurin Bevan’s National Health Service. If implemented intelligently, Labour’s plans for an equivalent education and social-care service are surely bound to enjoy levels of esteem similar to that of the NHS.
However: the same surveys confirm what less empirical research – speaking to people in Britain about their views on Corbyn – demonstrates: about half of those interviewed believed that the Conservatives are the party representing “more realistic and well-thought-through” policies, while only 31% favoured Labour. Moreover, as many as 56% hold the view that Corbyn would be a “disaster” as Prime Minister.
Much has been written about the possible reasons for this state of affairs since Corbyn became Leader of the Opposition; one common explanation points to “shy Tories” – people who dislike the Conservatives but, when faced with a decision in the voting booth, vote for them anyway, because they deem them more competent with respect to questions of defence or the economy. Although there are some problems with this interpretation (after all, Corbyn’s economic proposals also enjoy high levels of support), it does seem to explain the immediate reasons behind the phenomenon.
However, rather than fully clarify the question, it only raises another challenge: that of establishing why it is that so many people appear to believe that Jeremy Corbyn (or Ed Miliband or Gordon Brown before him) would be an incompetent Prime Minister.
Corbyn’s perception in the public mind
This, I think, constitutes the real question we should be asking, one which will provide a more satisfying answer to the title of this essay: why do we perceive political leaders the way we do? We are moving towards an area which psychologists and sociologists are infinitely more suited to address than I am; however, one can approach the question with an open mind and notice immediately how Jeremy Corbyn is portrayed by certain very powerful media outlets, whose influence on public opinion it is hard to underestimate.
Given the central role that the media represent in establishing and perpetuating any political leader’s image, it is worth looking at the attributes generally associated with Corbyn, and to what extent they are justified by his actual policies and actions. (Needless to say the methods discussed here are, of course, by no means new, or solely applied to Corbyn; with varying degrees of subtlety, their utilisation can be detected in the way most public figures are portrayed.)
The principal theme running through most of the reporting on Jeremy Corbyn is his portrayal as being on the far left, and, as a consequence, being unelectable. The latter has become a key word: it is often employed by New-Labour advocates, who view his vision of Britain as totally unrealistic, due to its nostalgia for outdated socialism (some papers like to illustrate this point by printing older photographs which depict him wearing a black cap). There are two instances of such coverage which are perhaps emblematic of the whole: you may recall the Daily Mail’s announcement of the leaked manifesto (“Labour’s manifesto to drag us back to the 1970s”), or The Times’ reference to Corbyn’s “Chairman Mao-style bicycle his neighbours always see him riding”. These examples mark a range of descriptions evoking connotations of previous failed Labour leaders (at their most generous) and Communist carnage (at their most preposterous).
The impression many readers will take away from these descriptions will be – well, that of an unelectable candidate. However: his actual policies, as we have seen above, show a rather different leader, namely a moderately left-wing one. The core of his economic policies are really not radical at all: ending austerity is hardly controversial even in the US, and raising corporation tax to 26% will still leave Britain behind comparable Western countries (planned by Labour to finance a “spending spree”, as the Telegraph puts it). Britain has had much more radical governments in the past – when Clement Attlee left office in 1951 his government had successfully created the NHS and nationalised large parts of the economy from a position of post-war bankruptcy, and Harold Wilson’s liberal reforms in a still deeply conservative Britain of the 1960s and ‘70s read like a fantasy of progressive utopia. Bearing this in mind, Corbyn’s manifesto suddenly appears much less Maoist.
Another aspect of Corbyn’s image perpetuated by some media outlets is his depiction as a “weak leader”. This is expressed in a variety of synonyms and usually revolves around the following: he lacks charisma; he is incapable of preserving discipline in his own party; he is unable to protect the country. Again, we have a set of very serious allegations, so let’s see how they compare with Corbyn’s performance as Leader of the Opposition thus far.
Jeremy Corbyn has been a Member of Parliament since 1983 and was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015. His leadership was challenged last year, and the ensuing second vote saw him re-elected with 62% (exceeding his first election). Throughout this time, he has managed to remain in his position despite fierce opposition of the Parliamentary Labour Party, ceaseless attacks by the government and, of course, the subject of this piece – a hostile media. In the process, he turned his party into the largest political organisation in western Europe, now counting more than half a million members, suggesting that he does have at least some appeal among the population. It seems difficult to associate these facts with a weak leader.
The most pressing allegation, however, must be his alleged inability to keep the country safe, an accusation that is problematic on a number of accounts. I am not aware of any instance where the accusation was followed up by an explanation; one can only suspect it refers to his opposition to Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Trident. This is a complex issue, and I do not pretend to know a definite answer to it; however, at present we have a general agreement among English political parties that Trident must be maintained, even though there are some very strong reasons to oppose it (as the governing party of Scotland, where Trident is based, does). Whatever one’s belief on this may be, security threats are more complex than they used to be: in the era of cyber-attacks and lorries ploughing into people on the streets, a massive nuclear armoury no longer represents an effective form of defence. Quite apart from that, though, Corbyn’s manifesto has (for tactical reasons) moved away from its previous stance of phasing out Trident, thus rendering this criticism obsolete.
It therefore seems clear that much of the opposition to Corbyn is not so much based on a balanced evaluation of his policies, but rather on the fact that he is an outsider: he does not hold a university degree from Oxford or Cambridge, he has a long record of contesting government policies which were agreed upon by the majority of MPs, and, perhaps most importantly, his campaign is not supported by multi-million-pounds donations.
As I mentioned above, there are multiple factors at work in forming voters’ opinions of the candidates in a general election. Regarding Jeremy Corbyn, there are some of the usual – occasional gaffs, justified criticisms of individual policies – but such things could also be found among his predecessors (and, indeed, the current PM) and can therefore not explain his lack of popularity. The thing that seems to make the difference here is a constant nurturing of a negative image by continuously placing Corbyn under negative headlines, usually blaming him personally for Labour’s setbacks – he is casting his party into oblivion, he personally ran over a cameraman’s foot, et cetera. This practice is carried through to such an extent as to make it impossible to find a single news item that is even neutral, let alone supportive.
Whether the undercurrent is an overt or a more sophisticated one, coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is a constant, subtle forming of the widespread view that the current political consensus will keep us from danger – and all hell will break loose if an outsider gets in charge. Given the complete absence of balance, it seems fair to say that it is this, not his person or his beliefs, that makes many people vote against their own convictions. Thus, it is hardly surprising to see the government ahead in the polls.