On 19th January both the Labour Party’s internal report into the reason for its defeat in the 2015 general election, as well as the British Polling Council’s interim report looking at why the opinion polls had so spectacularly failed to predict the result, were published. A common theme in both documents was the over-dependence of both the Labour Party and polling companies on young voters, who were more likely to support the Labour Party, and a subsequent lack of attention paid to older voters, who were more likely to support the Conservatives. Looking at the how approval for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has evolved since he won the leadership election last September, it appears that he could be on course to repeat the mistake at the next election.
Appealing to young people has been one of the defining features of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership; during his victory speech, he identified engaging more young people with politics and the Labour Party as one of his priorities, arguing that they had been “written off as a non-political generation” and that this had to change. One of the central components of his strategy to the 2020 general election is winning over the support of young people largely ignored by other parties because they tend not to vote. Survey data measuring voters’ approval of Corbyn’s leadership shows that he might well be seeing some success in this regard.
The dominant media narrative about Corbyn’s popularity is that since becoming leader he has become consistently less popular amongst voters, with the latest evidence suggesting that he is hitting new lows in popularity following a series of high-profile mistakes or decisions which are thought to have damaged his reputation as a competent leader (such as the protracted ‘revenge reshuffle’, and his support for launching nuclear submarines without any weapons). If we look at the data in more detail, however, while this growing scepticism is clear it is not universally shared.
The figure below presents YouGov data showing the net approval ratings of both Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron since the Labour leadership election last September, with voters split into the 18-24 and over 25 age groups (the net approval rating refers to the proportion of voters who feel that Corbyn/Cameron is doing well as Labour leader/Prime Minister minus the proportion who feel they are doing badly). The dotted lines relate to the over 25s, and it is clear that the media narrative of declining support for Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is accurate. After winning the leadership, Corbyn’s approval rating among this age group was -20. By mid-January 2016, this had fallen to -44. Looking at the data for the under-25s, however, shows that the younger voters have consistently been more supportive; in September 2015 Corbyn’s net approval was 0 amongst young voters, and by mid-January 2016 it was +6.
Moreover, if these ratings are compared with those of David Cameron, we see that Corbyn is considerably more popular among the young than the Prime Minister. Between mid-November 2015 (when data becomes available for both Corbyn and Cameron) and mid-January 2016, Cameron has an average net approval rating of -23 among the under-25s, compared with an average of +5 for Corbyn. The situation reverses, however, if we look at the over-25s; the average net approval for Cameron is -3, compared with -38 for Corbyn. There is clear evidence, therefore, of a divergence of support; the young are substantially supportive of Jeremy Corbyn than of David Cameron, and do not share their elders’ growing scepticism regarding Corbyn’s leadership. The over 25s, meanwhile, while becoming more wary of Corbyn are notably more supportive of the Prime Minister.
Source: YouGov. The disparity between data provision for Cameron and Corbyn is a result of data on Cameron’s net approval not always being available when Corbyn’s leadership was assessed. Data for September 2015 relates to how voters expected Corbyn to lead the party; all other refers to their assessments of his leadership.
This data presents something of a caveat to the media reporting of Jeremy Corbyn’s declining popularity. While there is clear evidence of such amongst most of the electorate, the young have remained considerably more favourable towards him throughout his time as leader. On one hand this could be favourable for Corbyn; he is substantially more popular amongst young people than David Cameron, and is managing to retain their support even while their elders become more critical. On the other hand, however, is the fact that young people are less likely to vote than their elders – a lesson Labour were painfully reminded of after the 2015 election. While Corbyn retains the support of the young, older voters are becoming more sceptical about him while remaining more supportive of David Cameron. While Corbyn can boast good progress on one of his objectives to help win the 2020 election, unless he succeeds in other objectives and broadens his electoral appeal, he will have only succeeded in building a coalition of support amongst people who won’t actually vote for him.
About the author: Dr Stuart Fox (@stuarte5933) is a Quantitative Research Associate at WISERD, based at Cardiff University. He provides quantitative research expertise and support to projects throughout the Civil Society Research Centre. He also develops links between those projects and works with colleagues to exploit new research opportunities from the overlap between the Centre’s extensive research portfolio. He completed his PhD in Politics at the University of Nottingham, where he studied the political apathy and alienation of young people in Britain and the effect of each on their political and civic participation.