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Policies or Presentation: What’s Corbyn’s Problem?

09/05/17
Policies or Presentation: What’s Corbyn’s Problem?
Policies or Presentation: What’s Corbyn’s Problem?

With a new ICM poll for the Guardian showing that the Conservatives are 22 points ahead of Labour, it looks increasingly unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn will prove successful in convincing the UK population of his party’s merit.

Labour have lagged well behind the Conservatives in polls since Corbyn took charge, rubbing salt into the wounds inflicted by the 2015 General Election, when David Cameron’s Tories surprised almost everybody by claiming an overall majority.

A number of theories have been proposed for Corbyn’s struggles. One is that his policies are simply too left-wing; too centred on public spending, state intervention, and flirtations with proposals such as nuclear disarmament. After Ed Miliband’s centre-left Labour lost in 2015, many saw Corbyn’s lurch further left as a dangerous electoral move.

So, has policy been the main problem? The answer is not completely. Specific Corbyn policies garner huge public support, with a Comres poll in April showing that 71% back a £10 minimum wage, and 63% are in favour of raising the income tax rate to 50% for those earning £150,000 a year or more.

There is also a case to be made for a move away from the centre given the current political climate of populist anti-establishment rhetoric that proved so pivotal in the Brexit referendum and US Presidential election. If Corbyn can position his policies through an ‘us vs them’ message, in a similar way to Bernie Sanders during his bid for nomination by the US Democrat Party, then he may achieve success.

But Corbyn’s lack of messaging expertise is precisely what appears to hinder his chances of capitalising on the popular support for many of his policies. What is Labour’s answer to ‘Take Back Control’, ‘Long-term Economic Plan’ or ‘Strong, Stable Leadership’? The Conservatives have a formidable record of hammering home key phrases to the electorate, knitting together policies via a coherent narrative.

This emphasis on narrative-building draws on a realistic picture of voter engagement. Building a campaign around key slogans gives voters something to cling on to, something to mentally associate policies with. In a society short on political enthusiasm and high on media output, Corbyn’s refusal to engage in such strategies appears to show a lack of adaptability, and an overly-optimistic assumption that the population will be able to ‘get’ the importance of his policies.

And when the Conservatives are able to generate a slogan as emotionally powerful as ‘Take Back Control’, they are recognising that individuals do not just think about politics rationally, but also ‘feel’ the force of certain ideas and values. Drew Westen’s 2008 book The Political Brain showed how logic often only plays a supporting role in voter decisions.

Might Corbyn turn things around before the ballot boxes come out? His first speech of the campaign suggested a greater willingness to create a clear vision, as he vowed to “overturn the rigged system” run by “Establishment experts”, and place power back into the hands of “the people”.

Will this Sanders-esque, anti-establishment rhetoric turn the tables for Corbyn, or do vast swathes of the public have an ingrained image of an incompetent leader? We will find out on June 8th. 

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