Labour makes much of its claim to be the largest party, by membership, in Europe. But size isn’t everything. And when we find out what these half-million people are thinking, we have confirmation that size isn’t everything. It’s a big membership – but it reveals big problems.
YouGov has been polling these Labour Party members. As a result, a great deal of light has been shed on the current anatomy of Labour. The analysis tells us five things:
1. Corbyn’s overall support base amongst members is sliding.
2. The membership is deeply divided between members of long standing, and those who joined to support Corbyn.
3. The party on the ground is sustained by members who do not support Corbyn, 50% of whom are considering quitting if he stays much longer.
4. A Corbynite is not guaranteed to win a new leadership contest.
5. The membership as a whole has written off the party’s chances in 2020, regardless of who leads.
Corbyn’s ratings amongst all party members is sliding, however you measure it. His overall approve/disapprove ratings stand at 54:37 – well down on just one year ago, when they were 72:17. The doing well/doing badly is even worse, at 51:47.
When asked how long he should stay on as leader, members break thus: to 2020, 44%; go soon, 14%; and go now, 36%. A majority don’t want him leading into the 2020 election.
A split membership
The mass membership is in reality two memberships: those of long standing and those who joined as part of the Corbyn support movement. The polling shows that the two groups have radically different takes on the party’s position and its leadership. The relative weighting between the two groups is difficult to assess with precision, but a reasonable estimate would be 200,000 of long standing and around 350,000 as part of the Corbyn movement.
The two groups’ views, especially on Corbyn, are diametrically opposed.
The party on the ground is being sustained primarily by its longer standing members – the cohort who so clearly disapprove of the party leader. The majority of party members are in the Corbyn camp (although the enthusiasm is waning); it’s the broadly anti-Corbyn activists who are keeping the grassroots activity going.
It looks as if the Corbyn supporters are mostly ‘armchair’ activists. The question for Labour has to be, how long will the grassroots activists stick it out under a leadership they mostly dislike? The polling shows that 50% of this group have considered quitting the party in the last 12 months. If they do start to walk away, there are few new grassroot activists to take up the hard slog of the ground campaign.
A Corbynite successor?
It’s a commonly held view that if Corbyn stands aside, he will, given the current leadership rules, be replaced by another leader with similarly left-wing views – thus making no significant difference to the party’s electoral prospects.
But it may not be that simple.
The polling shows that in a new contest, Corbyn, if he were a candidate again (for the third time!) would command 40% support. Last time, he won with 59%. A group of five possible successors (Cooper, Umunna, Starmer, McDonnell, Lewis) each command support in the low 20s. So if they agreed one candidate, it could be a competitive race.
If Corbyn is not a candidate, the same five are joined in the 20s by Benn. McDonnells’ support (he denies he would ever stand) is at 27% and is matched by three of the other moderate contenders. If they agreed one candidate, there would be a chance of a serious bid. So even if McDonnell secures his rule change, lowering the MP nomination level to 5%, a new contest, minus Corbyn, would not necessarily be a shoe-in contest for the left candidate.
Will Corbyn make it to 2020?
It’s not looking very likely on this evidence. The support is eroding, even though the ‘Corbynistas’ are doing their best to stay loyal.
Party members are watching the judgement of other key sections of the party. The polling evidence indicates that support for Corbyn staying will slide further if either trade union leaders or the shadow cabinet start withdrawing support.
They appear less bothered about what voters think. Which sums up Labour’s problem very neatly.