Why leadership matters

Have you heard of the John Peel fallacy?  The late lamented BBC disc jockey was once heard to wonder why a certain artist’s recording wasn’t in the charts -- "Everyone I know has a copy". "No, you know everyone who's got a copy" came the reply.

A tweet that came my way applied the fallacy to Len McCluskey’s claim that Jeremy Corbyn was once loved by the electorate. “Those who love Corbyn only know those who love Corbyn.”

I’m no fan of McCluskey but he does have a point. Corbyn’s personal ratings were positive for a couple of months in mid-2017. But a glance at the leadership polling figures shows how quickly that was reversed and how far his rating nose-dived. They steadily worsened through 2018 and 2019 with a couple of pollsters recording minus 60%.

The party’s official inquest of the December defeat with its claim that Corbyn wasn’t to blame is little short of absurd. Don’t blame Corbyn is absurd.  

The dire Corbyn numbers will be put in perspective when we see what kind of bounce the newly elected leaders gets. A bit of polling by Ipsos Mori suggested every contender would outperform the current leader handsomely -- Caution: most of those polled didn’t have a view one way or the other. Front runner Kier Starmer even creeps into positive numbers which would make him more popular that Boris Johnson.

We should remember Johnson’s ratings have been mainly negative since his election – just nowhere near as bad as Corbyn’s.

Defining Johnson will be a crucial task for the new leader. She or he might like to take into the first PMQs this quote from Johnson’s former boss at the Telegraph, Max Hastings. Writing during the Tory leadership, Hastings was scathing about his former employee’s “moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth” adding, “His graver vice is cowardice, reflected in a willingness to tell any audience, whatever he thinks most likely to please, heedless of the inevitability of its contradiction an hour later. “

An analysis of the election result by LSE researcher Christabel and Luke Cooper may provide a better guide that the Party’s to that went wrong in December. Looking forward they argue a professional approach to targeting these lost voters, so “messages can be carefully honed in ways that make our radical policies appealing.”  

Labour should avoid making “shallow appeals. Focus on the economic policy offers that have support – “Regional investment, public ownership, the NHS, are all issues with broad appeal. Labour should focus on making this core offer seem credible.”

Of course Brexit hasn’t been sorted. It is already clear that Johnson will seek to play the blame game as part of a strategy of confrontation with Europe. The promises of ‘frictionless’ trade and bringing the country together look illusory.

Labour needs a better message than was deployed in the General Election. We should say we will back a ‘Fair and Family-friendly Brexit’, highlighting our priorities of defending jobs and living standards, plus protection for workers, consumers and the environment.

By Don Brind - Former BBC political correspondent