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Did people vote for Jeremy Corbyn because they thought he would lose?

The British Election Study Team

By Jon Mellon and Chris Prosser

In the run up to the election, many commentators and even some MPs suggested that people might vote labour despite Jeremy Corbyn and not because of him. People could do this, the argument went, because they could be safe in the knowledge that Labour would not win the election. A Guardian article from June 2nd 2017 reported that:

Joan Ryan, who was Enfield North’s MP between 1997 and 2010 and regained the seat from the Conservatives in 2015, encouraged voters to elect her “whatever your misgivings about the Labour leadership” because she expected Corbyn would not become prime minister.

Alternatively, some have argued that people voted Labour in order to not give the Conservatives a strong mandate, secure in the knowledge that they would win the election. Tony Blair in a blogpost written after the 2017 election:

The Corbyn enthusiasm, especially amongst the young, is real, but I would hesitate before saying that all those who voted Labour voted to make him Prime Minister; or that they supported the body of the programme rather than its tone.

I think they thought that the likelihood was that the Tories would be the Government, but were determined to neuter the mandate.

The idea that every last voter of a party supports its policies is clearly never true, but the question of how much impact people voting a particular way because they thought another option would win still remains.

We examine this question using the recently released 2017 British Election Study Internet panel data. In both the wave 11 (April-May) and wave 12 (May-June) surveys, respondents were asked how likely they thought it was that the Conservatives or Labour would win more than half the seats in the election. Looking at these responses over the campaign using the wave 12 data we can see that, although people on average thought that Labour would not win a majority, the perceived likelihood increased markedly over the course of the campaign, in line with Labour’s improvement in the polls.

Not all Labour politicians greeted Labour’s improved polling position with glee. As the Labour candidate Joan Ryan put it, ‘There is a very big danger that the polls are scaring off the undecideds and sadly there is evidence that they are – I could kill YouGov’.

If Ryan and Blair are correct, we would expect that the more likely people thought Labour was to win a majority, the less likely they would be to vote Labour. Using a statistical model we can examine the relationship between the perceived likelihood of Labour winning a majority and support for the Labour party over the campaign, controlling for other factors that might predict Labour support.

So does our analysis support the argument that people voted for Labour because they thought Labour would win? In fact, it suggests the opposite. As the graph below shows, the more likely someone thought Labour was to win a majority, the more likely they were to vote Labour.

Because we talk to the same people in multiple waves of the BES Internet panel, we can also look at how changes in the perceived likelihood of Labour winning a majority affects switching vote intention between waves. The graph below shows that when people’s perceptions of Labour’s chances of winning a majority increased, they were more likely to switch to Labour if they were not previously a Labour voter, and were more likely to stay loyal to Labour if they were previously.

Although undoubtedly there were some people who voted Labour because they thought they could not win the election, the evidence is very clear that this was not true in general. Indeed the opposite is the case – the more likely people thought Labour’s chances of winning the election were, the more likely they were to vote for them. In a draft working paper we examine this question in more detail and also look at the same question with regards to Brexit (with the same answer). Perhaps it should not be so surprising that in electoral contests with important consequences voters generally make choices that genuinely reflect their preferences amongst the available options.

  • Matthew Harrison

    Of course this is true: that is why from very early on, Corbyn was branded ‘unelectable’. His opponents in the party and in other parties knew that if they could convince people he was unelectable, it would become true. And so the opposite is also likely to be true: as soon as the election campaign was under way and parts of the media were giving him a fairer hearing, people started to believe he was electable and the public mood changed. Had this been a normal election rather than a rushed decision, there may have been more time to turn the public mood further.

  • jdp3

    What about people who voted Labour not *because* they thought Labour couldn’t win — it wasn’t their only or main reason — but still had it as a significant factor?

    Indeed, are there actually any people who voted Labour purely or primarily because they thought Labour couldn’t win? How would that even make sense?

    • Hazel Seidel

      Because they liked the local candidate or their stance on a policy affecting the constituency. Because they wanted to punish the Government and reduce their majority and power. You may as well ask why some people voted Brexit apparently as a protest, not thinking it would actually happen.

    • Richard Burnett-Hall

      Hazel Seidel has it right. I voted in Kensington for the Lib-Dem candidate (a) because I preferred her, (b) I thought she would pick up more of the Tory voters who wanted Remain than the Labour candidate (wrongly, as it turned out), but above all (c) to try get rid of our Brexit supporting Tory incumbent (who eventually lost to Labour by 20 votes). If our Lib-Dem candidate had not been the personable and excellent candidate she was, I would have voted Labour for the first time in my life in any national election, being pretty sure that Labour wouldn’t win, but reckoning that even if it did, we’d only have 5 years max of misrule, rather than a disastrous exit from the EU affecting generations.

  • Andrew

    So no one thought to ask the question: Is the Labour Party the party you will vote for? Forget Brexit forget Corbyn forget Blair forget who will become prime minister etc… No one asked which party will you vote for in the GE? Because to be absolutely fair did you ask any about Theresa May and the conservatives? Was YouGov and other polls simply telling lies when they said how far Corbyn and the Labour Party was behind the Tories? The problem I see is the authors simply succumb to the ideas there must have been an undue influence in the way people vote because of a) Brexit b) Brexit and c) those who wished to remain. The report is nowt more than mere piffle.

    • Stephen McNair

      You Gov does not “lie”. They can ask loaded questions, but the evidence is that they don’t. Also, they were very accurate in their final prediction of the outcome. There are disreputable polling organisations, and a plethora of silly online “polls”, but the serious ones have a real interest in getting accurate answers – their commercial business relies on this – they earn their money from corporations who don’t wast money on invented data.

      • Andrew

        how do you know ‘You Gov does not lie’ ? Where is this evidence? Commercial business relies on polls which relay the result they are interested in promoting :

        • Stephen McNair

          Where is your evidence? For the political surveys everything is in the public domain on their website – questionnaires,sampling methodology, weightings etc. You can do your own analysis of the data. I don’t see evidence of systematic bias.
          Serious professional polling companies like YouGov make their money out of private polls for commercial companies, A commercial company chooses a polling company they believe will tell them the truth (or as near as possible).They want to know what their customers and potential customers think of their products and their competitors. If a poll tells them that the product is wonderful when customers don’t think so, they go out of business!

          • Andrew

   and take note it is only ‘a draft working paper’

          • Andrew

            furthermore if ‘ They can ask loaded questions’ what serious academic is going to take any answers from You Gov as being impartial and objective when they can ask ‘loaded questions’ derrrr ?????

          • Stephen McNair

            do you have an example of a loaded question in a YouGov poll?

          • Andrew

            did you watch the video ?

          • Andrew

            Also in a more direct answer: from a survey I took literally two mins ago ‘ a public body it should be expected that BBC staff will work for less than this ‘. This is loaded because it labels the BBC as ‘a public body’ and therefore suggests this interprets a lower wage scale should apply. Why should people who work for public bodies receive less remuneration just because its a public body?