Corbyn and Miliband: too shit to win, too good to get rid of

“Corbyn’s in the Miliband zone: too shit to win, too good to get rid of.” So proclaimed a Labour source in Matt Chorley’s Red Box email in the wake of last month’s local elections. People can’t say that sort of thing around me – it just makes me want to go away and quantify it. So that’s what I’ve done.

Back in January I developed a new way of presenting political polling. Given the failure of pollsters to correctly predict the winner in 2015, as well as in 1992, I wanted to see if I could create a more reliable guide using existing data.

I combined voting intention with leadership approval ratings and showed that the surprise results of both elections became far less unexpected – predictable, even – when these two factors are displayed together.

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As part of this chart I also highlighted a “Winning Zone”, outside which no party leader has ever won an election. My aim was now to accompany this Winning Zone with two others – a zone representing the titular leader who is Too Shit To Win, Too Good To Get Rid Of (that’s quite a mouthful, let’s just call it the “TSTWTGTGRO Zone” for short), and then a “Danger Zone”, in which a leader has historically been in danger of being turfed out.

But how to define these new zones? I needed to figure out where on the grid leaders are when they are a) in trouble but are not removed, and b) in trouble and are removed.

Additionally – going back to the quote from the beginning of the article – I need to find where the Miliband zone is, and whether Jeremy Corbyn is really in it. And do those zones also correspond with the TSTWTGTGRO Zone?

I decided to use leadership challenges as the most obvious marker that a leader is in trouble. That was easy enough for the Conservatives who – as I’ve noted before – are a wonderfully regicidal party.

Labour, on the other hand, are a lot trickier – they’ve not officially overthrown a sitting leader of the party since 1923. There are some proxies I could use though.

First, and most obviously, is the Brownite faction’s ousting of Tony Blair. There’s not necessarily an obvious date on this one though, so I’ve shown two: the date Blair first put a timetable on his departure, and the date he officially stood down as leader of the party.

Gordon Brown’s leadership was marred by coup plotting. The most serious attempt was the aborted coup that James Purnell’s resignation as work and pensions secretary was supposed to kick off, so I’ve used that point as well.

Finally, I’ve also plotted the formation of the SDP as the most obvious act of rebellion against Michael Foot’s leadership.

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This was a good start. I decided I couldn’t include the Blair and Thatcher points as the significant length of time they’d been leader would make them the exception, rather than the rule. Likewise, the political landscape for when the SDP was formed was too different to apply to a modern setting.

It also became clear to me that it wouldn’t be right to depict Labour and Conservative leaders on the same chart, given how much more one party is able to tolerate their leaders than the other. This meant I could easily mark out a Danger Zone for the Conservatives using the Major/IDS leadership challenges. But for Labour I’d need to do some more thinking.

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I decided to look at where previous election losses featured on the grid. The two worst Labour election defeats in the time period were in 1983 and 1987. The 1987 loss was too high to use – not only did it not result in the resignation (or ousting) of Neil Kinnock, it would also encompass the point at which the attempted coup of which James Purnell was a part failed to remove Gordon Brown.

I therefore decided to settle on the 1983 defeat as the basis of the Labour leaders Danger Zone. I reasoned that surely even the Labour party would overthrow their leader if they were on track to do worse than Labour’s worst ever election result in modern politics.

Now that I have established Labour’s Danger Zone, it is just a simple matter of extrapolation that all points outside both the Danger Zone and the Winning Zone constitute the TSTWTGTGRO Zone. Here’s how it looks:

Election losses Lab leader zones-01.png

Now that I’ve established the new zones it’s time to see if the statement about Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn holds up. I plotted all of their monthly polling positions on the chart and voila!

Election losses Miliband Corbyn zones-01.png

We see that Miliband’s tenure does indeed mostly occupy the TSTWTGTGRO Zone. Of Miliband’s 55 months in charge he spent 41 there, and only dipped once into the Danger Zone. Likewise, the chart shows the truth of the statement with regards to Corbyn – he is literally in the Miliband Zone. It looks like the Labour party are going to be stuck with him for a while yet.

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