How do we explain the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn? Or to be precise how do we explain that everyone in the media is talking about Jeremy Corbyn? He is supposed to be leading the race for leadership of the Labour Party. That is the consensus amongst the pundits, and the story is running and running.
The source of the notion that Corbyn is now poised to win the top job in the Labour Party is based on two fairly dubious pieces of data. First is a leak of an alleged private poll. This is claimed to show Corbyn ahead but there are no other details. The other is a Yougov poll which the pollsters themselves issued with a strong caveat that it was no more than a ‘grainy snapshot’.
It is quite amazing to see the media and the politicians themselves getting so excited about a poll so soon after a general election campaign seen entirely through the lens of opinion polls that were demonstrated to be completely wrong on the final result. And even then the results the polls were indicating were not actually taken at face value. While they got the level of support for the main parties wrong, the polls predicted pretty accurately the wipe out of the Liberal Democrats. This was ignored in all the coverage – though not by Conservative Party strategists given the way David Cameron concentrated his efforts on the Lib Dem rich West country during the campaign. The pundits had a narrative they were fitting the facts to rather than interpreting what was actually going on.
So who are these people whose sole role in our complex society is to explain to us what is going on and who are so bad at it? I have become aware, by pure chance, of one Toby Young. He just happens to have made some comments when I have happened to be watching or reading lately. First I saw him on the morning after the election, the sun was barely up, saying that Labour had lost the election because it was too left wing. I was a little surprised that he could so confidently assign an explanation to something that nobody had predicted only 24 hours before. He didn’t come up with any evidence for the assertion, though the interviewer didn’t challenge him to do so.
I also came across a tweet by him while on Twitter in the random way these things happen on there. He was asking someone what a significance test was. I was slightly stunned that he wouldn’t know. Surely this would be something that a political commentator would know all about and would use regularly? As a professional scientist such things are a part of my toolkit and I had just assumed that anyone who writes about data for a living would have made themselves familiar with them as well. If you want to know what a set of numbers means you can’t really skip checking their significance, so you need to understand the way statisticians assess how likely a given result is compared to chance. So for instance supposing you want to investigate the idea that Labour governments are worse at managing the economy. You can compile a set of the numbers for economic growth since 1945 and see which party has the highest number. You will get two numbers – the Labour average and the Tory average. Labour’s is higher. You must then do a significance test to see whether the difference is greater than would be expected due to chance. Run this test and you’ll find that the difference is insignificant. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the activities of the two parties have no influence on the country’s economic performance, but it certainly doesn’t support the contention that the Tories run the economy better. Indeed so far as I can tell this idea is based on no evidence at all other than the assertion of the Tories and their supporters.
Significance tests are not particularly complicated and they are widely known about. They are built into Excel spreadsheets as standard. They are simple to carry out and very helpful to effective decision making. I regard anybody who doesn’t know about them as unqualified to comment on anything quantitative. And there are few things in life more quantitative than an election result. I have picked out Toby Young simply because he has revealed himself to be an ignoramus whose opinion should be discounted as ill informed by his tweet. But his ignorance seems widespread amongst pundits.
We now have considerable debate about the possibility of a left wing candidate securing the Labour Party leadership. Here are a few relevant facts –
– previous left wing candidates in internal Labour party elections this century have received derisory votes.
– the vote isn’t for another two months so none of the candidates have got their full pitches out yet.
– the voting system is a complicated one where members second preferences are taken into account. It takes a while to work out who has won with this kind of system even after the votes have been cast.
Polling the Labour Party membership would be difficult if you had the membership list. Without it is hardly worth the bother. What we do have is the individual constituency party nominations, which don’t seem to have any constitutional significance as far as an outsider like myself can determine, but presumably represent the views of the active party members, the ones who keep the whole thing on the road by giving up their free time to it. These can be expected to be a bit more zealous and more left wing than the average member. Liz Kendall, the least well known MP, having only just got into the Commons, is not unsurprisingly trailing. The other three are sharing the votes of about a third each. This doesn’t look much like a massive swing to the left to me. If you take into account that Mr Corbyn has been in the party for many decades and is well liked, there is a good chance that there is a big chunk of people supporting him as a person rather than because of his ideology. Again this is only likely to be the case among the more active members, so is probably again overstating Corbyn support.
So the idea that Labour is about to select the most left wing of the four candidates remains a pretty far fetched one. And yet not only are we treated to the press describing him as the ‘front runner’ as if it is a fact, we are also being told how much harm he will do to the Labour Party. Apparently he is capable not only of losing the Labour Party the next election, but blighting their chances for a generation. He might even put the hundred year old party out of business altogether. For a backbencher who most members of the public wouldn’t know from Adam only a month ago that is one heck of a punch he is supposed to pack.
What I wonder are the left wing views that he holds that are so repugnant. He hasn’t yet said anything that can be turned into a negative soundbite. He believes in rerating houses for council tax purposes, which will certainly make him unpopular. But that will make anybody who does it unpopular. But it will have to be done some time by somebody. He is also in favour of more taxation on the better off than is currently the case. This will make him unpopular with the well off for sure. If history is any guide, it won’t make him many friends among the low paid. In one interview he sort of implied that he wanted to balance the budget, which is not an unreasonable desire but given how much the government owes implies rather high taxation rates if he is serious about paying more than a token amount off. Traditionally people on the left in general assume that economic growth will allow debts to be managed – which has always so far turned out to be the case – and people on the right just don’t talk about it but run up the debts anyway. Corbynomics does sound a tougher sell than the Blair Brown package. But it is not totally off the credibility scale, and I’d certainly choose it over what we are getting under the Tories. A lot of people won’t like Corbyn’s lack of a policy to control immigration, but many will love his commitment to increased spending on education and infrastructure, particularly if they are on a low income and so won’t have to pay much for it. All in all, I think he is offering something a bit different to what has been on offer recently and it will appeal to some and repel others. I prefer the current Labour Party approach personally, but given that it has lost two elections on the trot I can see the argument for trying something a bit different.
So my analysis is that the left of the Labour Party doesn’t really pose that much of a threat. I don’t think Mr C will win, but if by some fluke he does and also manages to get to be prime minister and his full programme adopted – which I doubt – I don’t think it would do either the Labour Party or the country much harm. It might even do it some good. I am a bit skeptical that government programmes can do much to improve a country’s productivity very much. But I’d be delighted to be proved wrong on that. It certainly seems worth a try.
I say this as someone who is very much not on the left. I describe myself as a socialist, but that can mean almost anything. I voted Lib Dem in 2010, so I am definitely not too fussy about who I vote for. If a centre leaning good communicator with a low level of policy baggage were available I’d suggest that was the best bet – it seems like a safer way to win back people who voted Conservative than trying to win them over to something outside their comfort zone. But as one of those isn’t currently on offer I don’t see any strong reason not give Corbyn a try. He might well win enough support from current non voters to pull it off. I don’t know – it is a question of numbers and we don’t have any data to make an estimate. In fact the only approach I think there is any evidence available to justify rejecting it is the one that has just failed. This is what Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper seem to be offering.
You may or may not agree with what I am saying here. But the question is, why are the columnists and the TV interviewers so far off the mark in just about every respect. It’s easy to imagine it is all a wicked right conspiracy – and Toby Young himself does look and sound exactly like someone engaged in a right wing conspiracy. He writes enough provocative stuff it wouldn’t surprise me to see him claiming to be doing exactly that. But I don’t think that is the answer. For a start, it simply isn’t subtle enough. I think it is a combination of following the crowd and trying to make a story. After all, who is going to read about a constructive discussion between people about how they solve a problem that they have got. It is much better to turn the whole thing into a huge melodrama. In fact you can see this happening if you do what I did in researching this blog post. Compare what people actually say with how it is reported and the spin that is put on it. It is almost always misrepresented and exaggerated. There probably is some manipulation in favour of vested interests. There always is. But the short term motivation is to fill the news schedules. Unfortunately I think it does, at the margins, influence the outcome of elections. It isn’t the key determinant or Labour would never win, but I think it makes the job of the Conservatives much easier. They are already better funded – which enables them to run much more professional campaigns. The general bias of the media in their favour is an advantage too. But the pundits continual trivialising of debate – which to be scrupulously fair the Conservatives suffer from as well – is much more harmful to the Labour Party which has to rely much more heavily on its activists to mount a decent campaign. And if they end up unable to do so, we lose any choice we have at elections.