Executive summary: not due to any sense of ideological purity, but because I think he has the best chance to lead Labour to victory in 2020.
In 2009, I published an article in Party Politics that provides evidence supporting a relationship between choice-rich electoral environments and the probability of turnout. One argument that the article advances is that as the two main parties in any electoral context converge on the center ground, people are more likely to drop out of the electorate as the salient, viable choice is no longer a meaningful choice; i.e., when the parties appear the same to the voter, fewer people vote:
. . . as the ideological coverage of the parties on offer becomes more constricted, turnout is reduced. These findings exist in the presence of numerous individual and contextual explanations of turnout, and are confirmed against estimated variance in respondent over-reporting and with robust standard errors. In short, analyses of turnout that ignore the benefits term in the equation present an incomplete understanding of why turnout varies across and within countries.
The article can’t explicitly make that causal argument, however, as it’s a cross section of 28 democracies, and not an analysis of one country over time. However, turnout and two-party vote data from the United Kingdom do provide some (admittedly limited) support for this argument. The following table includes the election, the percent of the vote that went to the two main parties (The Conservatives and Labour), and turnout in that election. While a first pass on the data do indicate a relationship between the two-party vote and turnout, this is further buttressed by the basic Pearson’s r of 66.8.
What’s going on here? We know that people are more likely to vote if they perceive a difference between the choices on offer. We also see a relationship between the overall vote for the two main parties in the UK and turnout. I’m not suggesting that we immediately leap to a causal function between the two variables, but this will be a direction of future research. However, accepting the basic premise for the sake of discussion, one factor in the decline in recent turnout in the British polity is likely to be the absence of elections that matter. With both major parties converging on the center ground, the electoral narrative becomes who makes the best case as administrator of the economy, and not who has the best ideas for the organising of state and governance. Such elections don’t inspire, and voters turn away from the two major (samey) parties for various fringe third-parties, or for abstention.
Enter Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party leadership election. I posted twice about this leadership election last month, but chose to focus on the Party’s mishandling of voting eligibility. He only qualified for the ballot literally in the last hour, entered the contest simply to broaden the debate, and nobody gave him a chance to win. He now appears to have the best chance of the four candidates to be named the new leader of the Labour Party in just a few hours time, although this is by no means a certainty. That said, I do lament not rushing down to the bookies and placing a bet on him when his odds were 100-1 as a rank outsider.
While turnout should increase with a Corbyn-led Labour Party standing against the Government, it’s no certainty that the new (or re-) entrants to the electorate will significantly prefer Labour to the alternatives. But there is evidence to support the notion that they will. Any increase or decrease in the voting pool does not effect all parties equally; the relationship is asymmetric. A reduction in turnout is likely to hurt parties of the left more than the right; likewise an increase in turnout is likely to support parties of the left more so than the right.
When it comes to electoral politics, especially under the FPTP (aka single-member district plurality) electoral rules, I’m a quite pragmatic member of the left. I don’t mind making compromises in my core ideological values in order to enhance the chances of electoral probability. I suggest that Corbyn has the best chance of leading the Labour Party to victory in 2020 due to several factors. One, the now famous mobilization of support for Corbyn, especially among the young. However, this alone does not guarantee the swing in support Labour would require to win in 2020, but rather might simply reflect the highly motivated, ideologically inspired electorate that typifies primary electorates in the US.
What is probably a safer bet is that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be best-positioned to reclaim a significant share of the vote lost to the Green Party in England & Wales, or the SNP up in Scotland. Here in Plymouth Sutton & Devonport constituency alone, the Conservative MP beat Labour by only 523 votes, yet there were 3401 votes for the Green Party. Furthermore, there has been additional evidence from public opinion. An Ashcroft poll released this week indicates broad support across the electorate for a Labour Party that stood in clear opposition to the Conservatives. It would appear that the electorate is keen on having a real choice. There have been several similar polls released in the past few weeks, and likewise several indicating that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would have a rough time of it. Two issues need to be considered here in the interpretation of such polls. One, such polling questions are “extremely difficult if not impossible to make meaningful”, especially this far in advance of a general election. Two, Labour are faced with an extremely difficult electoral context in 2020, regardless who leads them into the 2020 election.
What I do flat reject, however, is the lazy argument that a non-Blairite left-wing Labour Party is doomed to the electoral wilderness. This argument always points back to Michael Foot and the 1983 electoral defeat against Thatcher. A credible argument exists pointing out this myth. The Falklands War had a measurable effect on Conservative chances in the 1983 election, such that it’s difficult to imagine a Tony Blair-led Labour Party winning against Thatcher in that context. Furthermore:
“For those who assert that Labour’s left programme cost it the 1983 election, it must follow that the party could have won had it moved right. We have test cases for this. Labour moved significantly rightwards for the 1987 election – and lost. It fought the 1992 election from a position still further to the right – and lost again. It took until 1997 for the ‘modernisers’ to be ‘proved’ correct, and only once the Tories had been stripped of all credibility by the ERM debacle, endless scandals, infighting and John Major.”
Every election is partially a function of its context — the fundamentals, if you will. John Major winning in 1997 was highly improbable, regardless who led the opposition. It was simply a matter of what the margin of defeat would be, and to his credit, Tony Blair did run up the score. It’s a good thing that he did, too, given between those gains in 1997 and the 2005 election, the Blair-led Labour Party lost 3,965,731 votes, haemorrhaging 8% of the vote share secured in 1997. Tony Blair was not the magician that he’s purported to be.
Another common argument is that Labour must win Tory votes to win an election. This is predicated on several assumptions, most lacking empirical merit. First, that the electorate is static. Second, that non-voters will always remain non-voters. Third, protest voters (presumably anybody voting Green, SNP, or Lib Dem) will always vote for a party with little chance to gain power. The first two are not supported by the evidence; to wit, Obama’s 2008 campaign benefitted significantly from mobilising new voters. There is some degree of support for the third, at the margins, but a large percentage of the Liberal Democrat’s support between 2001 and 2010, and the Greens since, was because the Labour Party was perceived to move too close to the Conservatives. The only argument of those that does have any merit is that a vote “stolen” from the Conservatives counts twice. While true in a vacuum, this does ignore that in positioning the party just to the left of the Conservatives, aping their narrative and accepting their assumptions, would result in an overall constriction of the electorate. In short, fewer voters. Plus, there would be more defections to parties of the left, which in the current electoral context are the Greens, SNP, and Plaid Cymru.
There are more concerning arguments, of course. Nationally, the media will not be supportive. I typically find media-orientated arguments in politics lazy (they’re very easy to state with authority, yet far more difficult to measure with any empirical rigour) but in this case it will be important for the Corbyn leadership to get out ahead in framing the narrative, which is rarely a Labour Party competence. I mentioned my distaste for a subset of the Corbyn support in my previous post, but their shrill attitude has many moderate MP and MP candidates fearing a purge by the Corbynistas, which would do significant damage to the party’s electoral chances in 2020. Several foreign policy positions of Corbyn’s are frightfully naive (though I do not have the time to go into it right now, which is a cheap cop-out, but leaving NATO is one such policy).
Finally, locally, we will have some hurdles to overcome in campaigning in the city council elections this upcoming May under a Corbyn leadership. He is famous for wanting to scrap Trident, which would negatively impact jobs here in Plymouth. That said, it seems cooler heads in the Corbyn camp, sensing victory and the concomitant responsibility, are suggesting that these policies be quietly shelved. While I think scrapping the Trident deterrence and re-investing the tens of billions of pounds in the Royal Navy proper is a wise policy, neither Corbyn nor any other potential Prime Minister is likely to make such a like-for-like re-investment with the savings (and I can readily get away with this opinion as having no desire to stand for office locally).
Ultimately, 2020 will be a tough fight, nationally, for the Labour Party. That said, Jeremy Corbyn offers the best chance to mobilise new and disaffected former voters, thus increasing the electoral pool, as my own research has suggested. A larger turnout should translate into a greater share of the vote for the Labour Party. Likewise, he offers the best chance at “winning back” those who voted Green or Scottish National as they perceived even the Ed Miliband Labour Party as accepting the basic narrative of austerity.
Of course, the 2020 election is 4.5 years away. Any number of exogenous or endogenous factors that we can not now anticipate might come into play. One thing is certain: should Corbyn win the leadership contest, politics in the UK will get somewhat more interesting in the months and years ahead.