Can left-wing populism win the UK election?

Prime Minister Theresa May's chief rival in the June 8 election is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Story highlights

  • Labour's leaked manifesto sets out plans for renationalization and increased public spending
  • Opinion polls suggest many voters do not see Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister

London (CNN)Theresa May's main challenger for prime minister in next month's general election is offering UK voters the most left-wing, big government policy agenda for nearly 40 years.

Under a plan which amounts to a charter for left-wing populism, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to renationalize large chunks of British industry, the railways and postal service, increase spending on health and schools, put up taxes for business and hike pay for public sector workers.
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The plan was revealed in leaks to the British media on Wednesday evening, and the details were not disputed by party officials during the day. The final version of the plan was agreed on Thursday afternoon, and Corbyn said the policies would prove "very popular" when they are published in the next few days.
There has already been a predictable backlash from Corbyn's critics, including Britain's Daily Mail newspaper, whose front page headline described it as "a manifesto to drag us back to the 1970s" -- a reference to an era of nationalized, unionized industry and high taxes under a Labour government.
But beyond Westminster, the policies -- which Labour says are "for the many, not the few" -- are likley to appeal to voters who are concerned about rising energy bills, overcrowded commuter trains and real-terms cuts to school budgets.
Polling suggests that the brand of left-wing populism that Corbyn represents could have broad appeal and translate to an electoral surge, similar to the surprise grassroots support for Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, when Britain votes in a snap UK general election on June 8.

Nervous voters

In the same way that Sanders and Melenchon defied predictions by pollsters and commentators by punching above their weight and winning popular support to come close to being the main challengers for the presidency, Corbyn won the leadership of his party (and fought off a second challenge a year later) by winning huge grassroots support from party members.
Boosting funding for public services and renationalization of key industries will certainly resonate in a country where the National Health Service and schools are facing real-terms cuts and rail fares have been increasing faster than the rate of inflation for trains that are often overcrowded and unreliable. A Sky Data poll last year revealed that 55% of voters supported renationalization of Britain's railways.
And at the 2015 election, analysis by the polling organization YouGov showed that voters preferred policies from Labour's manifesto (under the then-leader Ed Miliband) to the Conservatives' under David Cameron. There was an overall net approval rating of +34% for Labour's manifesto compared to +24% for the Tories' offer.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks in the House of Commons in London last month.
But the problem for the Labour leader is credibility. Miliband failed to win in 2015, and now, as the United Kingdom prepares for Brexit, voters are more likely to be nervous about radicalism.
These may be popular policies, but elections are also about leadership and whether voters believe someone can do a good job leading the country -- and even Corbyn's own circle will admit that Sanders and Melenchon both failed to seal the deal.
Voters may want more money spent on the NHS and have cheaper gas and electricity bills, but they still can not see Corbyn as prime minister. His personal approval ratings are -32% compared to May's +13%, according to the latest survey by Opinium.
Last week Corbyn's party did disastrously in the country's local elections, losing nearly 150 council seats while the Conservatives gained more than 300. Critics have also pointed out that the draft manifesto policies, which amount to billions of pounds in spending, are also uncosted and would therefore lead to tax rises.

Leadership question

Keiran Pedley of research firm GfK said: "There is evidence that so-called 'left wing' populist policies are actually rather popular among the public. For example, opinion polls consistently show strong public support for nationalizing the railways and increasing taxes on the rich to pay for public services.
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"However the challenge for the left is twofold. Firstly, we shouldn't forget that plenty of 'right wing' populist policies are also popular (on immigration, law and order, welfare and so on) and secondly, popular policies are not enough to win elections. The British left usually struggles -- in a tough media environment, it should be said -- to present popular policies as credible and deliverable to voters.
"This is why Ed Miliband can present popular policies in 2015 and lose and why I suspect Labour's manifesto in 2017 will poll reasonably well yet they will lose again. You have to get the leadership question right first and then the public will listen to you on policy."
A former Labour shadow cabinet member, requesting anonymity in order to speak without fear of recrimination, said: "This idea of 'popular policies' is a myth. It's motherhood and apple pie. It's credibility that wins you elections and the voters know our leadership and our policies have none.
"Labour governments have done left wing things after 1945 [with the creation of the NHS] and arguably in 1997 -- the minimum wage, a windfall tax on utilities, fairness at work legislation. You just need to pass the leadership and credibility tests -- and that's much harder than producing a manifesto, which is a bit like writing to Santa Claus -- you can ask for anything you want, doesn't mean you'll get it."