With the window for taking part in Labour leadership election closing and ballot papers going out there were several polls over the weekend asking about the leadership candidates, though no fresh polling of people voting in the actual contest. ComRes, Opinium and Survation all had polls asking about the general public’s perception of the candidates. While the polls weren’t presented that way, I’ve seen various people writing about them as evidence of which candidate would actually do better as leader. In particular the Survation poll had Jeremy Corbyn ahead among the public after they were shown video clips, so was taken as a sign that he may not be as damaging electorally as the commentariat widely assume.

Questions about how well different leadership candidates would do in a general election are always popular and sought after, but extremely difficult if not impossible to make meaningful. Asking the general public who they think would do better or worse is perfectly reasonable, but is a different question. Who people think would do better is not the same as who would do better, it’s just asking the public to answer the question for you and a poll is not a Magic 8 Ball. Asking the general public who they prefer doesn’t answer the question either, it contains the views of lots of committed Labour and Conservative voters who aren’t going to change their vote anyway, and preferring is not necessarily the same as changing your vote.

If you ask how people would vote with x, y or z as leader, or if people would be more or less likely to vote Labour with each candidate as leader then you are getting a little closer, but the problem is still that people are expected to answer a question about how they would vote with the candidates as leader when the general public know hardly anything about them. A fair old chunk won’t even know the candidates names or what they look like, the majority will have little real idea what policies they will put forward. None of us really know how they will work out as leader, what the public, press and political reaction will be, how they will really operate. How can respondents really judge how they would vote in a hypothetical situation with so little information? They can’t.

Some polls try to get round that by giving respondents a little more information about each candidate: a run down of their main policy positions perhaps, or in the case of the Survation poll a little video clip of each respondent so people could see what they looked and sounded like. This is better, but it’s still a long way from reality. It’s like the famous market research failure of New Coke – in market research tests people liked the taste, but release it out into the real world and people wanted their old Coke back. A video clip or a list of policies won’t factor in the way the media react, the way the new leader is reported, how they actually handle leading, the way their party and their opponents react. There is no really good way of answering the question because you’re asking respondents something they don’t actually know yet.

Is there anything polls can really tell us about how the leadership contenders would do? Well, firstly I think we can be reasonably confident in saying the polls don’t suggest any of the four candidates is any sort of electoral panacea, the most positive net rating in the ComRes poll is Andy Burnham and just 19% think he would improve Labour’s chances, 14% that he’d damage them (Corbyn gets more people saying he’d have a positive effect (21%) but much more saying he’d have a negative effect (31%). None of them have obvious election-winning magic like, say, Blair did in 1994.

They can also tell us some things about people’s first impressions of the candidates, something that shouldn’t be underestimated (people probably made their minds up pretty quickly that Ed Miliband didn’t look Prime Ministerial, for example, or that there was “something of the night” about Michael Howard. Those early impressions are hard to shift.). On that front the Survation poll is pretty positive about Jeremy Corbyn with people saying he came across as more trustworthy and in touch than his rivals (though such polls are always a bit tricky because of the choice of clips – Survation tried to iron out any potential biasing effect by having clips from each candidate being interviewed on the Marr show, so they were all interviews, all the same setting and same interviewer… but even then you ended up with two candidates defending their position on the welfare bill, one talking about the EU referendum and one talking about rail nationalisation. It’s almost impossible to do such things and have a truly level ground).

The argument against Corbyn isn’t about his personal image and manner though, it’s that he’d put the Labour party in a ideological and policy position that wouldn’t win votes, that the Labour party itself would risk ripping itself apart under a leader with little support among the Parliamentary party and a long history of rebellion. On individual policies I’ve seen Corbyn supporters taking succour from polls showing, for example, that a majority of the public support rail nationalisation or much higher taxes on the rich and drawing the conclusion that there is a public appetite for much more left wing policies. Be careful – look at this YouGov poll which shows a majority of people would support renationalisation of the utilities, increasing the minimum wage to £10 and the top rate of tax to 60%… but also a total ban on immigration and benefits for anyone who turns down a job, making life mean life with no parole in prison sentences and stopping all international aid. There are some policies to the left of mainstream public debate that are popular and some to the right that are popular, it no more means that the public are aching for a far-left political party than for a far-right one. Essentially you can pick a list of appealing sounding policies from almost any ideological stance, from far-left to far-right, and find the public agree with them. In reality though policies require trade-offs, they need to be paid for, they are attacked by opponents and the press. They are judged as a package. In terms of how well the Labour party would hang together under Jeremy Corbyn, polling of the public can’t really tell us – a poll of Labour MPs perhaps!

Bottom line? There is no way of doing a simple poll that will give you a ready packaged answer as to how well or badly a potential party leader will do, and the things that Jeremy Corbyn’s detractors worry about are not things that are easily tested in a poll anyway. My own guess is that those who think Jeremy Corbyn would struggle electorally are correct, though it does depend on whether the Conservatives also pull themselves to shreds after the EU referendum. I am a little wary about arguments about parties not winning because they are too left or too right. While putting yourself broadly where most voters are is sensible enough, those voters themselves don’t necessarily see things as ideologically left and right and specific policies aren’t really that important in driving votes. However, broad perceptions of a party, its perceived competence and the public’s views on how suitable its leader is to be Prime Minister are incredibly important. It will be an extremely hard task for Labour to succeed if it is seem as taking up a risky and radical route, if it’s trying to rebuild a lack of public confidence by selling an approach that is radically different from what a normally risk-averse public are used to, if it is seen as being riven by internal dissent and splits, if their leadership patently doesn’t have the support of its own MPs. Maybe he’ll surprise us, but I wouldn’t count on it.

On other matters, the ComRes poll also had voting intention, their first online VI figures since the election (rather to my surprise. Their online polls for the Independent on Sunday dried up during the election campaign itself and I’d wrongly assumed they’d come to halt as part of ComRes moving their phone contract from the Independent to the Daily Mail. I’m pleased to see I was wrong, and the ComRes/Indy on Sunday relationship continues!). Topline figures are CON 40%, LAB 29%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 13%, GRN 4%, and ComRes have adopted the same socio-economic based turnout model for their online polls that they have started using in their telephone polls.

922 Responses to “Can polls tell us how well Corbyn would do in a general election?”

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  1. Comres -yougov are quiet -anyone know why ?

  2. ComRes Labour VI if Corbyn was leader 22%

    Listen to ComRes folks we’ve been here before.

    I now think that Corbyn will withdraw, he entered to have a debate, he’s won that debate, he can now negotiate his position in the shadow cabinet and the key policies that he wants implemented. He will know as well as anyone, the tsunami that will follow his election and the dire prospects for Labour. So, if he cares about the Labour Party more than personal power he will withdraw.

  3. Does anyone have a link to that ComRes Poll detail.

    There are interesting nuggets in it:-

    “Some 57 per cent of Labour voters said they would stick with the party if he becomes leader and 36 per cent of Greens would switch to him. But 26 per cent of Labour voters said they would abandon the party.”


  4. Looking at ComRes none of them fair well. (I only have the mail online to go on, the tables aren’t up) but looking at the negatives again Burnham will lose least votes followed by Cooper, none of them look as if they can gain votes. But,
    I think that’s a factor of the messy leadership race. I still think Cooper would give Labour the best chance.

  5. @ Mr. Nameless,

    It kind of is. Jeremy Corbyn has some toxic policies but he’s not responsible for:

    a) This leadership election being a farce
    b) The fact that he’s on the ballot even though the PLP doesn’t want him there
    c) The fact that he’s winning

  6. @ Couper 2802,

    Not going to happen. It would be a betrayal of his supporters, it’s physically impossible at this stage of the process, and the thing about the “8 million votes for socialism” crowd is that they don’t believe they’re unelectable. Read Liz’s comments for the past few days.

    And whatever Cincinnatus-like qualities Corbyn may have, it would take a more unusual politician even than Jeremy Corbyn to withdraw from an election he’s about to win by a landslide.

  7. Anthony has warned us on multiple occasions not to give too much credence to these ‘Would you vote for X if Y was leader?’ questions as they’re not actually very useful.

  8. Couper2802

    I now think that Corbyn will withdraw, he entered to have a debate, he’s won that debate, he can now negotiate his position in the shadow cabinet and the key policies that he wants implemented. He will know as well as anyone, the tsunami that will follow his election and the dire prospects for Labour. So, if he cares about the Labour Party more than personal power he will withdraw.

    Have you been chatting to Peter Mandelson?

  9. @ Mr. Nameless,

    It occurs to me I was a little unfair to the Blairites in my previous comment.

    Obviously the single most embarrassing person in this- and really, in any other- election has been John McTernan, with Tristram Hunt, Mary Creagh, Liz Kendall, John Woodcock, John Rentoul and of course Moany Tony himself also giving strong showings. And we do need to give a special shout-out to Progress for coming up with the £3 supporter scheme and not realising leftwing people might sign up to it. But it would be unjust to let them take all the credit for this disaster when so many others have contributed.

    A bunch of Brownites have publicly humiliated themselves, especially Yvette Cooper, Chris Leslie and Michael Dugher, not to mention Gordon himself with his bizarrely belated endorsements. And we mustn’t forget the amorphous New Labour people who don’t really fall into either faction, such as Harriet Harman and Andy Burnham- boy did those two screw up massively.

    Basically every New Labourite other than John Prescott should spend the next few years hiding under a rock, and from the looks of things they will get that opportunity.

  10. LIZH

    The Corbyn agenda in the link you posted is pretty much what I and other hoped Ed would produce: I would vote for the specific housing policy alone: 240,000 houses per annum and a return to local government of powers and resources for social housing, including sheltered housing for the geriatric in care,is a doable policy. and a national educational plan returning the management of education to local authority building and educational management would have my vote.
    However these are policies which need the institutional and authoritative response which will occur following election and the backing of the party, since all responses, even those of independent academics, will be represented as partisan or implausible.

  11. I’d say that the Blairites inability to see how Blair won his elections is the fundamental issue. He had the left of the party behind him, that’s been Liz Kendalls big mistake whilst Burnham and Couper are just seen as unlikely to win.

  12. @ Fraser,

    Blair was also proposition solutions to problems people actually had. And he came in after 18 years of a government that had just presided over an economic crisis and that looked completely exhausted and riven with internal divisions.

    This was a tougher leadership contest than 1994. Kendall and the two centrists have signally failed to rise to the challenge.

  13. …and he also inherited a ~20% opinion poll lead from John Smith which probably didn’t hurt.

  14. John Pilgrim

    “These are all policies I would vote for”.

    The question is are they the sorts of policies people in south west/ south east and eastern England would vote for (assuming- a tad optimistically- that we automatically win back the midlands)??

    Its always dangerous in politics to project your own prejudices onto others in a glorious act of supreme wishful thinking. Though if you are naive enough to believe the left-liberal social media echo chamber actually ‘represents the world out there’ then you can be forgiven!



    CON 42%
    Lab 28%
    UKIP 9%
    LD 8

    I will be surprised if anyone at all (with their eyes and ears open) is surprised by these numbers. The first numbers available since it became clear that Labour will be led by a serial rebel and long time unapologetic [email protected]

    I’m not surprised though by the wall of denial regarding this poll, that is already flowing from the JC cultists!

    From this default position of #denial-in-the-face-of-reality its an easy cognitive shift to make to end up with 25% of the 2020 general election vote and declaring “8 million votes for a truly socialist platform: now that’s a triumph”.

    Actually, haven’t we been here before….

  15. @Rob Sheffield
    “Though if you are naive enough to believe the left-liberal social media echo chamber actually ‘represents the world out there’ then you can be forgiven!”

    What an arrogant little person you are.

  16. Dear Corbynites

    When you are called deluded, irrational and a cult, welcome to our world.

    I think this is why the pro-independence people are so sympathetic to Corbyn (myself exclude) because the establishment are using the same tactics to demonise him as they used to demonise the Yes movement and SNP. Project Fear 2.

    But the Corbynites did not defend the Yes movement, they joined in, with the honourable exception of Diane Abbott, who I hope gets the Mayor nomination on Corbyn’s coat tails.

  17. Please can everyone maintain the high standards I and many other long time readers come here to enjoy.

    Far too many posts currently boil down to childish whinnying. This isn’t the groaniad btl ffs.

    Thank you all.


    “Anthony has warned us on multiple occasions not to give too much credence to these ‘Would you vote for X if Y was leader?’ questions as they’re not actually very useful.”


    If everyone paid heed to AW though then he wouldn’t have to keep mentioning it on multiple occasions.

    I’m in the clear of course ‘cos haven’t commented on the matter…

  19. Cons a little low, IMO, I suggest that with a Corbyn victory, more shaky Labour supporters will drift centre right, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Labour down in the low 20’s, with the Tories high 40’s. Markets recovering, lots of profit made. :-)

  20. Rob Sheffield
    “Its always dangerous in politics to project your own prejudices onto others in a glorious act of supreme wishful thinking.”

    Except of course that I didn’t and don’t, Let me repeat: these are policies which I would vote for.
    On the whole, though, yes I think they may attract the support of others in greater numbers and with a broader spread, among both voters and the institutional bodies, in the public and civic sectors and the unions and in industry and the professions, which may give them more salience than Corbyn has been able to muster in the face of the fraction and unfair and uninformed comment.which the Labour leadership contest was bound to attract. This has, however been accompanied by genuine debate about reform , which he alone among the candidates had the credentials and weight to iignite, and which I and others have valued.

  21. @Spearmint @Couper

    Corbyn pulling out was a possibility earlier on in the contest but we are now at a stage where he’s probably sold the idea to himself and he’s gone too far to pull back. He may not go through to 2020 (and may not have the choice) but should he win he’ll certainly lead for the next while.

    Under the mainstream radar there have been some very interesting goings on in Northern Ireland today. The UUP have announced their intention to leave the executive. They only have one minister and the rules now allow a party to enter opposition if it wishes, even if it qualifies for an executive seat. But they have effectively bounced the DUP into having to make a decision which – barring some sudden change in the position of either Sinn Fein or the UK government – is likely to be following them out. So by the weekend the NI institutions could well be suspended. The ‘casus belli’ for the UUP’s position is allegations that a recent murder was linked to the continuing IRA but really things have been bubbling up for a long time – the parties can’t agree on much and so in many ways NI may be better off in the hands of Westminster.

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