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:

  1. Electability: who is more likely to win a general election, Corbyn or a Blairite, and how big is the difference?
  2. 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:

  1. True Corbynites: these people believe that Corbyn has both more electability and more efficacy.
  2. Leaning Corbyn: these people believe that Corbyn is less electable, but that his greater efficacy still makes him worth supporting over a Blairite.
  3. Leaning Blair: these people believe that Corbyn has more efficacy, but that his lack of electability still makes it better to support a Blairite.
  4. 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:

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.

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:


Electability Efficacy Utility





Blairites 50 10



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:


Electability Efficacy Utility


5 70


Blairites 50 10


Or maybe Corbyn’s chances are better than I think, and the Blairites are closer in efficacy to Corbyn than I think:


Electability Efficacy Utility


25 70


Blairites 50 30


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:


Electability Efficacy Utility


10 70 700


40 15


Cooper 50 10


Kendall 60 5


What do you think? Leave a comment, I’m genuinely curious.