Why Did Jeremy Corbyn Win the Labour Leadership? It’s a Question of ‘Fairness’

Jeremy Corbyn
Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, Britain, September 28. Corbyn is attempting a "populist" reboot. Darren Staples/Reuters

Campaigns have traditionally used a person’s demographic characteristics to predict the percentage likelihood of Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms X voting for Y candidate or Z political party. It’s a relatively straightforward task despite the apparent mystique such models seem to generate. There are a handful of people in the U.K. who have experience of running such models within political campaigns. They’d likely tell you their limitations as I would; they’re only as good as the data that goes into them.

The Owen Smith campaign was no different in using such models. The predictive model provided to the campaign gave each member a percentage likelihood (or propensity) of voting for Owen Smith based on their characteristics. This was complemented by a mountain of data I collected for the campaign: polling, extended surveys, message-testing, voter ID data, demographic data and finally, data on the personality traits of the membership. All of which will no doubt intrigue the nerds out there.

While all of the above data and subsequent predictive models use what we know about the demographic characteristics of voters, they omit how voters feel or think. We can say with some confidence, for example, what being male, aged 35, in social class C1, living in London and having a degree-level qualification means for that person’s likelihood of a) turning out to vote and b) voting for Labour. However, such a model would tell us very little about what emotional influencers were at play when determining if or how that 35-year old Londoner votes.

This is why I undertook an analysis of the personality traits and behavioral characteristics of the Labour Party membership to complement the numerical and statistical data being used. I don’t pretend to be a behavioral psychologist. Nor would I place this data above any other source of data in an imaginary hierarchy of importance. However, it did help explain what I took to calling the elephant in the room during the campaign: namely, the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).        

I believe any analysis of the Labour leadership campaign that doesn't begin with how the PLP has treated Jeremy Corbyn is flawed. This is because a large proportion of Labour Party members were unwilling to lay that issue to one side to consider voting for an alternative to Corbyn. The members, or at least a healthy proportion of them, aligned well with Owen Smith on policy. Many of the undecideds or persuadables were unconvinced about Corbyn. They recognized his weaknesses: electability, competence, the Brexit campaign, etc. However, this was not enough for them to move in anything like sufficient numbers to vote against him. Why?

The answer, or at least part of the answer, lies in the personality traits of the Labour Party members. As a bloc they value one quality above all others: fairness. Fairness in their own lives, fairness in how they want people to be treated, fairness in how they believe societal wealth should be distributed. In this particular context they believed, rightly or wrongly, that Mr Corbyn hadn’t been treated fairly by the PLP. “They conspired against him from day one,” they said. That the the PLP had purposely (and unfairly) rolled out resignations. Not only that but the election itself also challenged their fundamental belief in fairness. “This is undemocratic,” they said. The whole process ran contrary to how they feel the Labour Party should conduct itself. Remember, this is a party which very rarely deposes its own leaders.

Instead, the membership values consensus, a “broad debate,” the avoidance of conflict, the building of alliances, policy forums and, yes, fairness above all. All of which presented a very real problem to any candidate challenging Jeremy Corbyn at this stage. By doing so at the end of what the members believed to be a coordinated campaign against Mr Corbyn, the vote of no confidence and subsequent leadership challenge forced members to access that part of their cerebral cortex they prefer to suppress. The members are mostly agreeable types who are likely to reject any form of negative campaigning. “By all means have a debate on the direction of the party but don’t make it personal,” they demand. All of which presented Owen Smith and the campaign with very real problems from the start.

The campaign was asking a selectorate that prioritized fairness to put aside their concerns about whether Mr Corbyn had been treated fairly or not. The campaign was asking consensus-builders and conflict-avoiders to take sides and go to war. Neither was going to prove likely in a campaign encompassing just a few weeks, particularly given the overwhelming support Mr Corbyn already retained among the newer members. In order to win this campaign, the issue of the PLP’s treatment of Jeremy and the perception of unfairness would have to be disarmed.

This disarming will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than five minutes with me talking about campaigns. For example, when Labour campaigners are speaking to UKIP switchers I have often emphasized how the conversation should first be disarmed. There are no effective persuasion techniques that involve talking at (or shouting at) one another. Instead I often advocate silence, humility, “taking it on the chin” and ceding some ground before even beginning to introduce policy. This is a necessarily lengthy process, which is why I speak about campaigning between elections. It can take years. The Owen Smith campaign effectively had four weeks, which was no time at all to carry out anything like the effective disarming strategy required to satiate the membership.

Because the membership had a point; in their view Corbyn has been treated unfairly by the PLP. The PLP will tell you that they were forced into a corner and they did what they did after protracted discussions with Jeremy and his team, which is true. They will also describe in detail how incompetent the Corbyn-led operation has been, and they are right to call that out. However, none of those protestations mitigated the members’ views about Corbyn’s treatment, which was the determining factor in influencing how members voted. This was particularly the case for the older members, too many of whom agreed with Smith but not with the treatment of Corbyn. They needed more time. Meaning there was little prospect of a challenger beating Corbyn this time.

So, does this all mean Corbyn is unassailable? For the time being, yes. In a selectorate which was evidently unprepared to move against him he won a decisive victory. However, that doesn’t diminish the very real concerns the membership has about his leadership. After all, 38 percent of those members did put aside all of the above to vote for Smith. On this occasion Corbyn was somewhat protected by a combination of overwhelming support among newer members and a reluctance on the part of enough members to accept the terms of the challenge. That doesn’t mean the same reluctance will be there a year from now.

Nor is it certain that Mr Corbyn can satisfy the demands of that part of the membership he is now beholden to. There are already cracks appearing in the somewhat loose coalition of left-wing groups under his wing. Any perception of betrayal from the leadership of the party is likely to loosen such groups further, as was evidenced in the aftermath of the speech Clive Lewis gave to party conference last week.

What is for sure, at least to me, is that the membership need to come to a place where they've accepted that it's not working for themselves. They’re definitely not there yet.

Ian Warren is a political consultant who served as director of data for Owen Smith's campaign for the Labour Party leadership.