Well, sadly I didn’t get my wish for a short leadership election. However, now we are here it’s time to get stuck in to the ‘long debate’ that has been so lauded. Despite their, fairly abysmal, failing to predict the election result correctly, my feelings are that polls will be a very useful indicator of where the party needs to focus its messages over the coming years. I know some people will say there’s no point in listening to them at all now, but I believe there’s good reason to believe that polls are better at reflecting general attitudes than they are voting intention. Why? Because polls cannot really account for the phenomenon of people’s doubts and anxieties about their finances and change affecting their decision while they are walking to the voting booth. On the whole, people’s views on issues will stay the same, but who they actually vote for is more determined by fear for their wallets and the unknown.
So onto the meat of this. Today, YouGov published its first poll concerning where voters think where Labour should be heading and which leader they should pick after the election defeat two weeks ago. The full data tables can be found here. These are some findings which are think are the most interesting and relevant to the party:
1. Andy Burnham is the front runner
When people were asked the question, ‘Do you think each of the following would or would not make a good leader of the Labour party?’ the only MPs who achieved a net positive rating were Andy Burnham (+8%) and Chuka Umunna (+7%). As the latter is not longer standing, Andy is the clear front runner in this initial poll. The most interesting figures about these candidates is their ratings in the North/Scotland and the South/London. Chuka has a net positive of 7% in both former areas whereas Andy has one of 15/14% respectively. In contrast, Chuka has a net positive of 8/7% in London/South respectively whereas Andy has only a 5% net positive in the south and has a net 0% in London. Furthermore, Chuka has +3% with Tory voters while Andy has +3% with UKIP voters. No one else had a net positive in any of these regions or among these two voting groups.
2. However, there is still a lot to play for
One of the most striking findings is that over 50% of people polled answered ‘Don’t know, or don’t know enough about this person to say’ for every single leadership candidate. When it came to Liz Kendall and Mary Creagh, this rose above 80%. There is a lot of room for the candidates to make an impression in the debate, and my feeling is Andy has most to lose from this. This is not simply because he’s the favourite. The length of the contest means there is a lot of time for people to paint him as the continuity candidate, a union puppet and to highlight his relatively poor record on equalities. It will certainly not be an easy ride for him.
3. ‘Pale, male and stale’ really isn’t much of an issue for voters
I’ve argued for a while that the left needs to drop its obsession with identity politics. Outside of university campuses and the New Statesman, most people either don’t care about academic talk about compounded oppressions and micro-aggressions or find the whole language of the ‘culture wars’ divisive and toxic. This is borne out in this poll. 76% of those asked do not care if the next Labour leader is male or female, and 74% do not care if both leader and deputy are the same sex. Furthermore, there is no significant gender divide here, with only 1% between men and women in the first instance and 4% in the second. The fact remains that people care far more about the calibre of their leader and what policies they would implement than their gender. The party should bear in mind that this is the dominant position of the public and ignore Twitter and The Guardian.
4. This may not be quite the existential crisis for Labour that has been predicted
When asked where the Labour party should be politically, the top three answers were ‘Slightly left-of-centre’ (24%), ‘Centre’ (20%), Fairly left-wing (19%). This is not quite the strong ‘centre-ground’ mandate that some in the party hope for. However, they will take strength from the fact that 40% thought the next leader should move the party towards the centre. This may be optimistic, but I do not quite think this signifies the existential crisis some pundits are predicting. As Peter Kellner said, Miliband’s policies weren’t really that left-wing, but his rhetoric was. Theoretically, a future leader could maintain a fair few of Ed’s (popular) policies on addressing inequality while widening their rhetoric to encompass the more centrist ones. A wholesale rethink of the party’s stance and abandoning of either commitment to tackling inequality or fiscal tightness may not be exactly what is needed.