Blair vs. Corbyn: How to Think About Where You Should Stand
by Benjamin Studebaker
Yesterday, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote an op-ed for The Guardian arguing that Labour voters should reject Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader on the grounds that Corbyn is unlikely to win a general election in 2020. Corbyn replied that he does not do personal or abusive politics. This got me thinking–what are the primary differences in thinking between a Corbynite (someone who supports Corbyn) and a Blairite (someone who supports Burnham, Cooper, or Kendall)?
There are really two areas where Corbynites and Blairites can differ:
- Electability: who is more likely to win a general election, Corbyn or a Blairite, and how big is the difference?
- Efficacy: who will do more good for the country in government, Corbyn or a Blairite, and how big is the difference?
There are four kinds of Labour voter in this election:
- True Corbynites: these people believe that Corbyn has both more electability and more efficacy.
- Leaning Corbyn: these people believe that Corbyn is less electable, but that his greater efficacy still makes him worth supporting over a Blairite.
- Leaning Blair: these people believe that Corbyn has more efficacy, but that his lack of electability still makes it better to support a Blairite.
- True Blairites: these people believe that a Blairite has both more electability and more efficacy than Corbyn.
People disagree about how electable the candidates are and how much efficacy they would have. They also disagree about how to weigh these two considerations–some people think electability is far more important than efficacy, and vice versa. We could make a relatively simple formula that would help show how Labour voters are disagreeing:
(Electability x Importance of Electability) x (Efficacy x Importance of Efficacy) = Expected Net Utility
Labour supporters ought to back the candidate whose expected net utility is higher. For a True Blairite or True Corbynite, this is simple because the same candidate is perceived to have advantages on both of the relevant scales. I’ll say a few words about these folks and then move on to discuss the people in the middle.
True Corbynites believe that Corbyn is more efficacious than Blair because at this point the Blairites no longer meaningfully oppose austerity or benefits cuts. Many Labour supporters would agree with True Corbynites on that point. What’s controversial about these folks is that they also believe that Labour is more likely to win with Corbyn.
Essentially, these folks think Corbyn will pick up support from people who defected to the Greens or the SNP. They also think that Corbyn will pick up support from people who stayed at home. They believe that Labour lost the last election because it failed to pick up these voters and because fears of a Labour-SNP coalition frightened away people who would have otherwise voted Labour.
I’m not confident in this claim, though at this stage it is not possible to categorically deny it. It is true that if Labour had received all the SNP and Green votes, it would have won a larger percentage than the Conservative Party (39% to 36.5%). If all SNP and Green voters had supported Labour, this would give Labour all 56 of the SNP’s seats, the Greens’ 1 seat, 1 Lib-Dem seat, and 10 Conservative seats. That would push Labour up to 300 seats and reduce the Tories to 320. This would have denied the Conservatives a majority. But I very much doubt that Labour is going to route the SNP in this way, or that Corbyn is going to persuade the Greens to fold up shop altogether. Ultimately, this line of thinking rests on an assumption that there are a lot of non-voters out there who would vote Labour if Corbyn were leader who won’t vote Labour otherwise, and that this number is significantly larger than the number of extant Labour voters who would defect to the Lib-Dems or Tories.
It’s a very optimistic view of British politics and British voters, but unfortunately I doubt it’s true in no small part because there really are a significant number of true Blairites.
There was once a time when Blairism was just a strategy for winning office. Labour supporters post-1983 still believed in Old Labour policies, they just recognized that they could not win with those policies. Eric Hobsbawm was a dedicated communist, but he was still a Blairite because he believed that the industrial working class was no longer large enough to sustain a more robust left-wing policy angle. But since the 80’s and 90’s, this has changed–today a significant portion of the Labour Party embrace Blairism not just as a strategy but as the appropriate goal. When these folks say that they cannot support Corbyn, they do not mean merely that they cannot support his campaign for leader but that they cannot support Corbyn’s policies–they genuinely believe in 3rd way New Labourism as a political ethos. If you spend decades ridiculing the kinds of policies and beliefs your party used to stand for as a strategy, its new members will oftentimes genuinely share that hostility. Someone like Liz Kendall doesn’t just disagree with Corbyn’s strategy–she thinks he is mistaken on policy.
These folks may defect from the Labour Party if Corbyn wins. They may join the Lib-Dems or the Tories or start some modern analogue of the SDP. One of the tragic consequences of Blairism as a strategy is that it becomes Blairism as an explicit goal. The left cannot move to the middle tactically without ultimately moving to the middle substantively.
So I think the leaners broadly have it right–Corbyn’s policies are better, but Corbyn is less likely to win. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should support a Blairite. If Blairism is not that different from Conservatism–if it is, as they say, “Tory Lite”, then it may be more rational to take a chance on Corbyn anyway.
Let’s start with a very Blairite assumption–a Blairite candidate has a 50% chance of winning the 2020 election, while Corbyn has only a 10% chance. Let’s also assume that efficacy is no more important than electability. Even with these assumptions, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which the rational thing to do is still to take a chance on Corbyn. It all depends on just how much more efficacious you think Corbyn is. If we imagine an efficacy scale where the Tories are zero and the second coming of Clement Attlee is 100, we might imagine that things are really like this:
It all depends on just how big you think the gaps are. Maybe Corbyn only has a 5% chance of winning, in which case you should support a Blairite:
Or maybe Corbyn’s chances are better than I think, and the Blairites are closer in efficacy to Corbyn than I think:
It’s possible that Corbyn has no chance of winning at all, in which case you should support a Blairite. It’s possible that Blairites are not better than Tories at all, in which case you should support Corbyn. It’s possible that both of these things are true, in which case Britain is totally screwed.
If you’re a Labour supporter, what numbers do you think belong in these scales? What’s their respective chances of winning, and where do you think they stand in terms of efficacy? Do you agree with me that we ought to weigh electability and efficacy equally, or do you think one should count for more than the other?
From where I’m sitting, I think the first numbers I gave you are about right. Corbyn has maybe a 10% chance of winning a general election compared to 50% for a Blairite, but Blairites are only marginally better than Tories while Corbyn is massively better, so it is still more rational to support Corbyn. That means I’m “Leaning Corbyn”. Which way do you go? Do you lean Corbyn, or do you lean Blair? Or are you a true Corbynite or Blairite? Which numbers do you think best reflect the reality of where the leaders stand? Do Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall have different figures? Maybe it all looks like this:
What do you think? Leave a comment, I’m genuinely curious.
I’m definitely Corbynite, to use those terms. He’s the man of the moment and I think electorate will pick up on his integrity. Of course, the Tory press are doing their utmost, but he’ll get his moment in the media to say what he believes, and he’s a conviction person, and that will carry the day. The cynicism of the others can’t win — no Blairite can win on the false move towards what you have termed ‘substantively’ the centre. We are in an age that calls for more progressive solutions to the challenges, so rational or not, you have to go with Mr Conviction, and fence sitters will suffer the indignity of a few cracked shells for sitting too high on the fence…
But he’s really not that progressive! He’s basically an 80s throw back. I’m am pro-redistribution. .. but nationalising the big six utility companies for £120 billion? That is economically suicidal and will only discredit the left.
Blair’s New Labour government, for all its faults, was one of the most redistributive governments ever. It won on a ticket closer to the centre. It understood the constraints of the modern political and financial status quo, yet it was driven by a compassionate desire to help people lower down the income distribution. If we want the Labour party to make any meaningful change, that’s where it should be aiming.
I wouldn’t call Blair’s government “one of the most redistributive governments ever”–the rate at which inequality grew under Blair & Brown was about the same as under Major:
Surely growth in the wealth of the top 1% isn’t, by itself, necessarily a good measure of how redistributive a government is..?
Blair invested unprecedented amounts of money into the NHS. The same government also invested in families, schools and lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty.
Read the second paragraph under ‘Social Policies’ which draws from Polly Toynbees book.
Also check this out:
It just annoys me that the Burnham, Cooper and Kendall have done such a bad job of defending New Labour’s record. It’s unfashionable to do so. It was made sour a) by iraq, and b) by the triumphant Tory narrative that New Labour’s profligate spending somehow caused the financial crisis.
What i’m trying to say is that Blair won Labour 3 elections. New Labour weren’t perfect.. but without any acknowledgement of the need to appeal to the centre, there will be no labour government. I wouldn’t be surprised if an elected Corbyn, who wants to re-open the coal mines, will cause a huge division and even secession from the party.
One final thing. Labour winning the next election will not DEPEND on appealing better to left wing voters. We know this from simple arithmetic:
If we want labour in power, we need a leader who can appeal to those 72,000 voters in marginal seats that voted conservative. Corbyn will not do this.
New Labour supporters often gloss over the fact that the Tory manifestos of the period frequently called for similar spending increases:
Click to access manifesto-uk-2005.pdf
In 05, the Tories even proposed scraping tuition fees and promised to increase the NHS budget at least as much as Labour.
While NL used to be more left wing than it is now, the Tories also used to be less right wing. Both groups have shifted together.
If you don’t find top 1% income share appealing, take a look at Britain’s inverse Pareto-Lorenz coefficient. The trend is about the same:
‘Calling for’ similar spending increases isn’t the same as doing it in power. Parties will do best by appealing to the centre, then pushing towards their respective ideological policy visions.
You’re implying there is no significant policy difference between the two major parties any more, which is a common position but i don’t accept it. I don’t accept, for example, that the tories would have had such a impassioned policy priority on eliminating child poverty, as NL did.
I think it’s good to think about economic ideas in the abstract, but applying them in political realities brings a whole new set of constraints.
I wouldn’t say that there’s no difference at all, but I think the difference is small enough that one could be justified in supporting Corbyn even if he is significantly less electable.
Parties certainly campaign to the center, but when they make specific policy pledges in their manifestos, they will be severely penalized if they fail to keep them (e.g. the Lib-Dems on tuition fees). I think it’s reasonable to take the old Tory manifesto pledges seriously.
This is the dilemma for Labour supporters! Labour supporters have to predict the future and understand how the mass of the electorate works to predict ‘electability’. As all politicians fail to keep their promises, efficacy is also an unknown.
If only we had a reliable model for predicting the behaviour of these so-called ‘muddle England’ voters.
My personal view is that all the candidates are roughly the same in terms of ‘electability’. I’m a centre-left person, who has yet to vote for the Labour party planning to move to a marginal constituency (which will make a change!) and feel as though I might with Corbyn as Labour leader, though I know I’m far from typical.
What we do know from voter theory is that a lot will depend on the state of the economy in the run up to the 2020 election–if there is a significant recession, any opposition candidate could stand some chance. The 83, 87, and 92 elections all took place during economic recoveries, favoring the incumbent party.
For some Corbyn’s efficacy goes into minus utils because he’ll further divide the labour party and send it deeper into irrelevance.
Ideally electability should be irrelevant and it should be all about policy. But time and time again that’s proven untrue.
Having said that, there are a not insignificant number of people who believe Labour failed in May because they didn’t campaign on presenting an alternative to austerity policies and getting the message out there that austerity is stupid. I think there’s at least some truth to that.
Of course, the reasons that austerity is stupid are not simple to explain. Whereas it’s very easy to speciously argue that austerity is entirely sensible by comparing a nation’s finances to that of a household. Ergo if you don’t vote for a party in favour of austerity, you’re reckless, irresponsible, you hate Britain and should move to communist Belgium.
But I find it hard to wrap my head around the notion of electability and especially how it relates to winning. It seems like when Labour supporters write about it, they’re only concerned with winning because any Labour government is the best, just because it’s Labour. It’s like they’re talking about a football team. Policies be damned. I never read mentions of why the candidates who aren’t Corbyn are better on policy, just that they’re more electable. It’s weird, right?
I’m not a Labour supporter. But I would support them and Corbyn if he were to win and lead them to the 2020 election. Almost entirely because I oppose stupid stupid austerity, but also partly because he seems like a decent sort. I suppose the latter is our friend electability.
Agreed, I think Labour supporters have a tendency to assume that a Blairite leader has more policy efficacy than the statistical reality of the 97-10 period suggests. On many metrics they were not much different from Major.
I am a True Corbynite (though I would prefer to be Corbynian). My feeling is that there is no point in worrying about who might win in 2020, because if we wait until then there will be nothing left to save. Our NHS and our Social Security will be gone. Our public services will be in private hands. Our sick and disabled citizens will be dead.
I hope things don’t disintegrate that quickly. “Corbynian” does have a ring to it.
Leaning Corbyn, I knew that as soon as I read the descriptions. My issue at the moment really is that I feel like my choices when the election comes, are vote for the man who has a social conscience or vote for the person most likely to beat the Tories in a general election. But it goes beyond that. An unelectable Labour Party could be dangerous for Britain because they are the only Party with any hope at all of replacing the Tories. Without the Labour Party there is no serious opposition and we are essentially faced with a Tory dictatorship. So really, the question is do I vote for a man with a conscience or do I vote for at least the continued pretence of a democracy?
I do think that if there is a significant economic bump toward the end of the Tories’s run (somewhere between 2018 and 2020), this could help an otherwise unelectable person or party win. It’s for this reason that I think Corbyn has a 10% shot–I think there’s a 10% chance of a bump of that size happening at the right time. But you make an interesting point–if Corbyn can’t win, is a choice between the Tories and Tory lite a meaningful democratic choice in the first place?
All four of these positions assume that in five years we in Britain will be in a gradually accelerating state of privatization and inequality, with its burgeoning discontents. I fear it’s far more likely that the ever-inflating economic bubble will have burst again, with far more disastrous consequences than before, in which case all bets are off, including whether on not there will even be an election.
I agree that neoliberal economic policy (rising inequality, shrinking state, etc.) is ultimately unsustainable, but I think it will take longer than five years before the bottom falls out. I do think there’s some chance that there will be another significant bump though, which could help an otherwise unelectable person or party win in 2020. Hard to say for sure either way at this stage…
1. I think it’s possible that the economic situation will change rapidly for many voters who voted Tory or UKIP at the last election once the budget cuts kick in so there may be movement of voters there.
2, I think Jeremby Corbyn may prove more pragmatic on some policies that people have given him credit for so far. He will stick to his basis unchanging anti privatisation, Trident, pro peace etc stance but may be more flexible on how he goes about it. Eg he never said he would privatise energy companies he said it would be better for them to be in public control. He’s not going to renationalise them at a cost of £120b.
3. I think that the way the Labour Party is run under him will involve more consideration of grassroots thoughts and actions. After all there are 4.5 more years of Tory parliament to fight and campaign against. With a growing grassroots support we don’t know how the undecided and the forever Labour voters will go.
4. I am obviously voting for Corbyn as Inthink he has a depth of feeling for the actual voters and their wishes that the others candidates don’t actually have. They may say they have but it doesn’t come from the heart
I think there may be too much focus on 2020. We don’t know what will have happened by then, and particularly what the economy will be doing and therefore whether it favours the incumbent party or the opposition.
What we do know is that we have five years of Tory rule, and therefore what we know we need now is effective opposition. I can’t see Burnham or Cooper being strong enough. Nor can I see them fully and effectively challenging the austerity narrative.
I have been a Libdem since 1978, but would vote Labour for the first time if Corbyn got in, but not otherwise. I like his honesty and his anti-austerity policies.
I personally put a lot more emphasis on policies rather than electability, partly on principle and partly because I believe it might eventually pay off, even if I have to wait decades (I’m still rather young after all).
If Labour moves to the right to steal votes from the Tories, yet left wingers continue to vote for candidates who advocate these policies, we’re signalling that it’s acceptable to do so and, worse, that they can consider moving even further right to further undermine the Tories.
In other words, I’m trying to make the “electability” score for left wing candidates higher. I can accept some shift away from my favoured policies, but it’s difficult to at this point as the party openly accepts the Tory austerity agenda.
Unfortunately the only obvious way for me to combat this (I can’t vote in the leadership election) is to not vote for a right wing Labour party. This has a few disadvantages:
1) it increases the chances of a Tory victory, which is even worse
2) it does nothing to persuade others to vote for them, so it could just end up further reducing Labour’s electability score
3) If large amounts of people follow my strategy (which is also the only way it could work), Labour will probably only realise after an election.
To be clear, I voted for Labour last election, but only because there was no other left wing party campaigning in my constituency.
One element that is left out of the equation so far is the tight control on the media. No matter what *reality* we see in 2020 in terms of the economy and the ‘moral’ record of the incumbents/opposition, the dominant discourse will likely rule the day. Whatever the free Metro paper says, it lodges in the minds of commuters and forms opinions they may not even recognize. Until people start to get beyond magical thinking and naive assumptions about their role, their agency, neoliberal ideologies will continue to prevail in spite of another financial crash and more crippling austerity. The media power brokers know that people forget what happened yesterday when somebody rescues a dog from drowning, when a hen-do goes wrong and gets 1 million Youtube hits, and when some celebrity slips on a banana peel and bumps his head.
If I could vote in the UK, I’d be leaning Corbyn. But Labour is no longer the party of Keir Hardie, and that’s the Labour party I prefer over its current sorry sad state.
It’s Corbyn or no one for me… Clearly a man of integrity… but he has to persuade the electorate that ‘fairness & justice’ is the way to go in a world where the odds are heavily stacked against such ideas & a political/economic system that will not even give credence to them.
That said, everything starts with a thought & platforms such as this might help convince the majority that an alternative to Tory hypocrisy & greed is, not only possible, but better… for EVERYONE (rich & poor alike).
As Francesca Martinez said, when she shared the stage with Corbyn at the ‘Anti-Austerity’ March: “Never give up hope because the first step to creating a better world is to believe in one. Keep believing.”
Great work Benjamin…
Interesting methodology but at the end of the day it will depend on who has the compelling narrative that dominates the media and commands respect in the wider population. I would not support Labour led by any of the contenders. In Scotland we have a competent left of centre party in government and currently the only opposition in Westminster.
There were a number of things that characterised the Blair/Brown years. Most of all the infighting meant that Labour provided government and opposition in a period of disorganised Tory opposition until Brown became PM. Infighting is endemic in the left and all hell will break out, especially if Corbyn wins. A split not impossible but more likely just protracted chaos and no emergence of a solid narrative to counter austerity.
Lets look where Corbyn stands. Principled opposition to renewing Trident. I have no issue with that but to move opinion it is necessary to understand it is also unaffordable and the UK does not today have a credible conventional defence capability. Coming out of Nato in an interdependent world – economics and defence – is a position too far removed from practical politics
Europe – Corbyn seems ambivalent at best and this is an issue that demands clarity. The Tories are split over Europe and Corbyn supporting an OUT vote will align him with the Tory New Right.
You are right Ben to raise the issue of how the economy is performing in the lead up to 2020. I agree we are likely to see an event. I hope you are right it will be just a bump but the indications are it could be as severe as 2008 or even worse. We are in the slowest ‘recovery’ in history and despite some positive signs, abeit with low growth, the UK and others globally, are not well positioned to withstand a major shock.
Permanent low interest rates, QE programmes, a stock market beginning to look overvalued, low productivity, cuts to government capital expenditure, banks with balance sheets showing write downs dribbling out and business sitting on profits retained instead of investing are sure signs the ‘recovery’ is far from secure. BoE and the Fed will threaten interest rates rises, qualified by probably being implemented in small steps. This is as much as they can risk to cool unwise borrowing but indebted nations need low interest rates as there is a correlation between base rate and the rate you pay to service national debt. I suspect the odds are against Yellon raising rates in September but a small rise may come later and the BoE might follow next year. Leaving rates unchanged or raising bank rate carries risks either way.
The acid test i would suggest is – would Corbyn be able to deal with any of those issues and understand the UK consequences in a global world? I have no sense JC does global and not much confidence any of the others are much better equipped.
It really doesn’t look good for a change of UK government in 2020 unless the Tories rip themselves to shreds over Europe. If it is a NO vote on the EU then the consequences will be catastrophic and the process of withdrawal painful for many sections of the economy.
Meanwhile we have a new Labour leader in Scotland and that isn’t going to help Labour here either.
Sorry, I can’t comment. I’m as mystified as you.
You do a very good analysis and I am a great admirer of Blair. But how do we/ they get the labour act together to be good for the non- elite classes? I tend to agree with Corbyn’s ideals but we had all this in the 80s with Michael Foot…intelligent and his vision spot on….but not a snowball’s chance in he’ll of being in a position to do anything.
[…] was intrigued by this blog post from Benjamin Studebaker that proposed a utility theory based model to help people to choose which […]
Nice post. I like politics. I like numbers. And I like spreadsheets. I’ve knocked up a spreadsheet using your model and stuck it up on my blog. It can be found here:
This is very cool! I love it.
I should add, my spreadsheet allows you to weight electability versus efficacy. My assumption was electability was twice as important as efficacy. I was still able to come out with a rational decision too vote Corbyn – my assumptions are the defaults in the model.
Corbynites say that a Corby led Labour Party would engage non-voters who would then vote Labour in 2020, thus leading to victory. Is that plausible?
If you want to know take a look at the model I’ve developed looking at the impact of an increase in turnout in 2020. It tells an interesting story and gives some food for thought.
This is a fun model! Well done. You might also include a figure for SDP-style defections resulting from Corbyn. It’s possible that some of the Liz Kendall people may become Lib-Dems or Tories, or form a splinter party…