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Why Labour Party members still back Jeremy Corbyn as their leader

Dr Monica Poletti from QMUL's School of Politics and International Relations explores how different views among older and newer Labour party members shaped the outcome of the leadership contest, using survey data from the Party Members Project.

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So Labour members (and £25 supporters) still want Jeremy Corbyn to be their leader, even after the turmoil of the past year. Our extensive survey of members helps explain why he scored such a significant win over Owen Smith.

We spoke to members just after the party’s 2015 general election loss and again in May 2016, after Corbyn won the 2015 leadership election. By that time, Labour’s membership had almost doubled from 201,293 in May 2015 to more than 388,000.

This second survey means we can separate out the new full members that joined before January 2016 – the members who were still allowed to vote in the latest leadership contest. It shows just how wide the gap is between old and new members on several key issues.

Leadership as a driver for membership

Labour members had been longing for someone like Corbyn before he was even on the ballot paper. A good deal of latent dissatisfaction, as well as demand for a leader who was more socially liberal and economically left wing than Ed Miliband was already bubbling under in May 2015.

But old members and new members take a very different view of how important the party leadership is. Fewer than half (42.5 per cent) of old members said they had been driven to join because they believed in the party leadership. More than three quarters (76.5 per cent) of the post-May 2015 members said this had been a driving factor. This number goes up further to eight out of ten (82 per cent) among those who joined during the 2015 leadership election and to virtually everyone who joined after September 2015 (95.6 per cent) when Corbyn had already become leader.

Since the party’s leadership is such a core factor for them, it’s clear that the new members were never very likely to vote for Smith. Their belief in Corbyn is the very reason many of them joined.

This “Corbynmania” can perhaps be partially explained by how estranged many new members feel from the political elite. A significantly higher proportion (almost 11 percentage points more than older members) feel politicians don’t care what people like them think. They are also less likely to feel as though they can influence political affairs. While 82 per cent of old members felt positive about this, only 69 per cent of new members felt the same way.

The large increase of like-minded members, the social movement-like euphoria and the social media hype that have developed around Corbyn’s leadership may well have addressed the perceived divide between members and leaders, and given hope to many of new members of bridging a gap which is otherwise perceived as unbearably wide.

Ideological shift

Older and newer members also take different views of where the Labour Party sits on the political spectrum. On a scale from 0 (extreme left) to 10 (extreme right), in May 2015 older members position the Labour party at 3.5 and place themselves at 2.4. On the other hand, in May 2016 new members position the Labour party at 2.8 and place themselves at 1.9. Of the new members, one in ten (10.4 per cent) consider themselves a member of Momentum, the association supporting Corbyn’s leadership, and (at 1.38) they are even further to the left than others.

Moreover, a third (31.4 per cent) of the new members are not completely new to the party, since they had been Labour members in the past. When asked (in an open question) why they had left the party and then rejoined, two thirds of them explicitly mentioned either Tony Blair, the Iraq War or New Labour policies being too far to the right as the main reason they left in the first place. Corbyn offers the opportunity to shift the ideological balance of the party back to its pre-New Labour era.

However, Corbyn is also well liked because he is perceived by new members as better understanding the importance of the voice of the people than previous leaders – something they rate as extremely important.

In fact, some 40 per cent of the new members think that the current Labour leadership respects ordinary members “a lot”. Only 16 per cent of older members believed that was the case in May 2015. The difference is striking, and this may be another reason why the membership was keen to stick with Corbyn.

New members also don’t seem fussed about having a leader who is good at communicating. Only 35.2 per cent rated it as the most important quality in a leader, compared with 49.5 per cent of old members. Owen Smith’s strengths in this regard, then, probably did him little good.

But what about the voters?

The ability to unite the party and to appeal to the average voter – qualities Smith supporters claimed their man had – do not seem to be tremendously relevant for either old or new members, although they were more important for the former than the latter.

Yet, it is precisely the need to appeal beyond the membership to the electorate itself that presents the biggest challenge for the Labour Party under Corbyn’s continued leadership.

Our data show that there is an obvious gap between the views of Labour members and previous Labour voters when it comes to social and moral (as opposed to economic) issues, such as immigration or law and order.

In principle, this divide is not unbridgeable. But the bridge can only be built if new members will accord as much weight to the opinion of ordinary voters as the new leader has accorded to the opinion of grassroots members.

This need not mean abandoning social media campaigning, which pro-Corbyn new members are particularly keen in pursuing even if it too often tends to preach the converted. It would imply, however, investing more time and effort in the old-fashioned, time-consuming (and at times nerve-racking) activity of talking on the doorstep to ordinary citizens.

It might be boring old politics but it this is still the best way to carry on a genuine two-way conversation with those who hold different views. And it will decide Labour’s fate at the next election.

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