The Valence War: Johnson vs Corbyn

As Theresa May learned to her cost two years ago, it’s not just, or even mainly, policies that decide elections, but party leaders and their character. In 2017, May’s ratings crashed during the campaign, while millions of voters discovered that Jeremy Corbyn was not as dreadful as much of the media had painted him.

Political scientists have a word for this election-changing phenomenon: “valence”. In their prime, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair won huge victories because they were clear valence-victors. They were seen to be tougher, more effective and more in touch with voters than their rivals.

These qualities matter, because few voters pay close attention to the twists and turns of detailed policy developments – and this minority group seldom decides elections because its members generally have firm party loyalties. The voters who matter – the ones who are apt to change their minds during election campaigns – tend to be not so much “policy” voters as “valence” voters. They form a broad view as to which parties, and above all their leaders, have the competence and character to provide Britain with effective leadership.

With an autumn election in the offing, Deltapoll’s survey shows that Boris Johnson is winning his valence war with Corbyn – but more because the Labour leader’s character ratings are weak than because the Prime Minister’s ratings are strong.

Thinking about [Person], do you agree or disagree with the following statements:

 

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn

All Members of Parliament generally

Your own local MP

 

%

%

%

%

He is / They are not afraid to make tough decisions

65

34

35

34

He is / They are intelligent

64

51

48

51

He / They has the strength of character to handle a crisis well

48

28

25

37

He / They has what it takes to get the job done

46

27

23

38

He / They has strong principles that He / They always sticks to

45

41

23

36

He / They believes in fairness and equality

40

45

25

41

He / They has good judgement

39

25

19

36

I would enjoy spending time with him / them

38

21

17

26

He is / They are a kind person

35

33

22

36

If I lent him / them some money, I'm sure He / They would pay me back on time

35

39

23

38

I would be happy for him / them to drive me home after a party

32

31

21

36

He / They can be trusted to tell the truth, not simply say what people want to hear

31

30

13

30

He / They understands the lives of people like me

27

31

14

35

I would be happy for him / them to look after my young children

25

25

16

30

In fact Johnson scores well on the purely political virtues – a willingness to take tough decisions, strength of character in a crisis, and having “what it takes to get the job done” – but far less well on more personal characteristics. Fewer than one in three thinks he can be trusted to tell the truth or “understands the lives of people like me”. Just one in four “would be happy for him to look after my young children”, while one in three say he fails the test set by Amber Rudd during the Conservative leadership election. She famously conceded that Johnson was “the life and soul of the party”, but wondered if he was “the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening”

The prospect of the Prime Minister chauffeuring, or baby-sitting, for a floating voter in a marginal seat is not particularly high: but responses to these kinds of questions can reveal voters’ suspicions of character defects that might creep in time into voting choices.

Some of the gender differences are worth noting. Johnson scores better among women than men for intelligence and equally well among men and women for having strong principles, good judgement and the ability handle a crisis. But women are less keen than men to spend time with him, have him look after their children or drive them home after a party. Both men and women rate his political qualities better than his personal qualities; but the political/personal divide is more marked among Britain’s women.

If the news for Johnson is mixed, it is almost uniformly bad for Corbyn. He has terrible ratings on strength of character, getting the job done and perceived truthfulness. Voters reject him as an emergency baby-sitter and late-night driver as decisively as they reject the Prime Minister.

Corbyn is in positive territory on a few qualities: intelligence, sticking to his principles and believing in fairness and equality. However, instead of striding well ahead of Johnson, as he might have expected, he enjoys only a narrow lead on fairness, and actually lags the Prime Minister on being principled and intelligent.

Less surprisingly, far fewer people would enjoy spending time with Corbyn (21%) than with Johnson (38%); here, however, it is the Prime Minister who might be the more disappointed with his score, for he, more than any politician in recent times, has nurtured a reputation for sprinkling star-dust over his persona and having the appeal of, say, a famous actor rather than that of studious policy wonk. Yet three in five voters are less than keen to spend time with him.

Deltapoll also tested the “valence” ratings of “all Members of Parliament generally” and “your local MP”. The overall reputation of parliamentarians is terrible. On only one attribute, that they are intelligent, do more people agree than disagree – end even here they are far less highly rated than Johnson, and slightly worse than Corbyn and their own MP. Johnson’s scores for trust, or as a baby-sitting or late-night chauffeur, are poor, but those for MPs in general are far worse.

As past surveys on different issues have shown, voters tend to rate their own MP more highly than MPs as a whole; but the comparison is purely relative. On only two measures do more than 40% give their own MP credit – for intelligence and a belief in fairness. Perhaps ominously, if MPs are to spend some weeks during the autumn knocking on constituents’ doors seeking their votes, only one in four voters would like to spend time with their MP. Candidates would be wise to avoid lingering their constituent’s doorsteps, especially during Eastenders, Coronation Street or Bake Off.

The larger point, if there is to be an early election, is that the Prime Minister is currently ahead of Corbyn on points. However, these figures are not set in stone. Just as in 2017, a fiercely fought election campaign will expose both leaders to intense scrutiny, and could cause many voters to change their views.

Will Johnson strengthen his reputation further – or will his current perceived character strengths start to fade? Can Corbyn, unlike a souffle, rise twice?

Plainly, an early election will be dominated by Brexit. But the fate of many closely fought seats, and thus of the overall election result, will depend on such things as Labour’s ability to retain its support in key marginals – and whether the Tories in these seats can prevent defections to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. And these factors in turn will depend in large measure on which of the two leaders wins the valence war between now and polling day.

 

Peter KellnerAuthor: Peter Kellner