Opinion - Politics

Don't count out Jeremy Corbyn in the UK's general election

John Ellis, editor of online publication News Items
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attends the launch of the party's election manifesto at Birmingham City University on November 21, 2019 in Birmingham, England.
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Regarding the UK election on Dec. 12, the oddsmakers and the pollsters say that Boris Johnson is "on course for a comfortable majority." The question is: Is that true?

It certainly appears to be true. The Times of London recently commissioned a massive survey of the British electorate, went through it constituency-by-constituency, weighted the results accordingly and came away with the following:

The Conservatives would win 359 seats, Labour 211, the SNP 43 and the Liberal Democrats 13 if the election were held today, according to a seat-by-seat analysis based on polling by YouGov for The Times.

Eurointelligence, a smart and useful newsletter about all things Europe, offered this assessment of the YouGov poll results:

We think the poll is more or less a good description of the status quo – not so much because of its technology, but its sheer size. YouGov interviewed some 100,000 people over a period of seven days, a number big enough to make YouGov's multi-level regression and post-stratification (MRP) technology possible in the first place. The main polling result is that the Tories are leading Labour by some 11 points, very much in line with the poll trackers. YouGov says that, if the gap falls to below 7 percentage points, a hung parliament becomes more likely.

So that should be that.

But it doesn't feel that way. And evidence to the contrary keeps popping up.

Here's one disagreeable data point, courtesy of (again) Eurointelligence:

A last-minute spike in voter registration shows a 38% increase over 2017. Of those new registrations, two thirds are from the under-35. As young people are more likely to vote Labour, this would help the Labour Party. The UK newspapers attribute the spike ahead of last night's deadline to a message from the Stormzy, a popular British rapper.

Here's another: After the first nationally televised debate, The Times of London reported:

A snap YouGov poll after the ITV debate handed victory to Mr Johnson by the narrowest of margins, with 51 per cent saying that he was the better performer against 49 per cent for Mr Corbyn. YouGov also found that 54 per cent thought Mr Johnson came across as more prime ministerial, compared with 29 per cent for Mr Corbyn. Fifty-nine per cent said, however, that the Labour leader was more in touch with ordinary voters, compared with 25 per cent for Mr Johnson.

51-49? Huh? Post-debate polls are useful because they provide fresh insight into voter preference. Debates, in this age of polarization, are all-but-entirely perceived through the lens of partisanship. If you're for Johnson, he has to go far, far astray to make you say he "lost" the debate. The same holds true for Corbyn. He could call for the reformation of the Soviet Union and he wouldn't suffer any immediate, consequential voter attrition. He might (he almost certainly would) suffer the next day and the day after that, after the press had waterboarded him on the front pages and television newscasts. But even then, his candidacy would not collapse.

51%-49% got everyone's attention. A statistical tie! And then there was this disquieting business about being "more in touch with ordinary voters." Fifty-nine percent said Corbyn was "more in touch." Twenty-five percent said Johnson was. Few things in politics are more disquieting than a 34-point deficit on an important metric of electoral success.

Johnson's strategist, Dominic Cummings, secured his reputation for political mastery by guiding the Brexit referendum "Leave" campaign to victory. He did so by executing the most effective digital campaign in the history of modern British politics and by keeping the electorate focused on a simple message: "Take Back Control." Indeed, he built the entire campaign around that idea and never once deviated from it. It was his version of James Carville's relentless and effective four word mantra for the 1992 U.S. presidential election: "It's the economy, stupid."

Throughout the "Leave" campaign, Cummings viewed politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson as distractions and did everything he could to marginalize their importance to the electorate. He wanted voters entirely focused on (from his point of view) their empowerment. He wanted nothing to do with the self-aggrandizement of men like Farage and Johnson, whom he viewed with barely concealed disdain.

He was mostly successful. It worked. Leave won.

Now that Cummings is running the Johnson campaign, he has chosen a strikingly similar message: "Get Brexit Done." Not: Elect Tories. Not: Keep Johnson. Not: Stay The Course. Get Brexit Done. He chose that message because research shows it is the surest path to victory.

And yet, even with that simple, straightforward, popular-enough proposition, Johnson's Tories have not been able to put the election away. An upset remains possible and not improbable.

The UK's heavily-populated anti-Corbyn press corps, sensing disaster, has taken to constantly "assessing" Johnson's (important) strengths and (unimportant) weaknesses while portraying Corbyn as a cross between Joseph Stalin's rightful heir and Jack the Ripper. The devil you know is a devil, they say. The devil you don't is a monster.

Even with the onslaught of all this negative Corbyn press, however, Johnson keeps muddying the message and getting in the way; a disastrous visit to flood victims in the north, a dreadful interview with the BBC, the annoying and unhappy girlfriend, the list goes on (and on). Johnson has run a terrible campaign. It's not lost on anyone that he can't escape the grasp of an opponent who sports a (roughly) 60% unfavorable rating.

Toward the end of last week and over the weekend, the Johnson campaign and its allies talked to a number of key U.S. power brokers beseeching them to keep President Trump from "meddling" in the UK election campaign. Trump's unfavorable rating in the UK is every bit as robust as Corbyn's, if not more so. An endorsement from the U.S. president polls badly, across the board. As a result, every effort was made to convince Trump to keep his distance and forgo any tweets on the subject.

So far, Trump has "behaved" and "stayed focused," in the condescending words of his self-important aides. How long he will be able to do so is an open question. But his mere presence has given salience to Corbyn's unstated message, which is, basically, "Send Them a Message," the slogan of the insurgent 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns of late four-term Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a fellow master of grievance politics.

That's a powerful message for a wide swath of the electorate. If you think Johnson is a charlatan and a cad, a posh populist, an Eton elitist through and through, then voting Labour (and thus supporting Corbyn) would seem meaningful in the same way that voting to "take back control" seemed satisfying and significant in 2016.

Corbyn isn't anyone's idea of posh. He's the antithesis of the focus-grouped candidate. Which is part of what makes him formidable. He's made more formidable by an illogical but enabling sequence: Since he's going to lose anyway, like Trump in 2016, there's no harm in voting Labour. Your voice will be heard, loud and clear. And let's face it; nothing says "drain the swamp" quite like voting for Jeremy Corbyn.

That's the mindset Labour is counting on. If enough people think that way, the odds of a hung Parliament increase accordingly. And that's why we are where we are now -- somewhere between an uneasy Tory win and a hung Parliament.

In the privacy of his office, Dominic Cummings must pine for the days when he managed the Leave campaign: unencumbered, under-estimated, under the radar. He's none of those things now. He strives to keep it simple. Johnson seems almost compelled to make it sloppy. There's no way to marginalize his importance to the electorate.

To quote Wallace one more time, in these kinds of political campaigns, at the end, when everyone is riveted to the news and partisans are hungry for more, "you gotta get it down there where the dogs can eat it." Corbyn knows a thing or two about dog food. Don't count him out. Don't be surprised if a hung Parliament is the election's result.

John Ellis is the Editor of News Items and a former columnist for The Boston Globe. You can reach him at jellis41@protonmail.com. You can sign up for the News Items newsletter here.