14 April 2020

How far up Labour’s electoral mountain is Keir Starmer?


Labour’s heavy defeat at the 2019 general election was frequently characterised as leaving the party “with a mountain to climb”. And as I’ve noted previously, since December the mountain has become even bigger than the 123 seat gains compared with that result, that the party would need for a bare overall majority next time round.

With Keir Starmer now leading Labour, it’s worth taking stock of where he starts from, and what progress might reasonably be expected in the short term.

So far two polls have collected personal ratings for the new opposition leader, with 31% satisfied against 10% dissatisfied from BMG (net +21) and 34% approve 8% disapprove (net +26) from Opinium. These numbers certainly look better than either of his predecessors managed at the same stage.

In their respective first weeks, Jeremy Corbyn’s numbers – based on polls with a variety of question wordings – ranged from -22 to -3, while Ed Miliband’s ranged from +8 to +20. So Starmer’s numbers are decent, but the big caveat is that there are many voters who don’t yet have an opinion.

Almost three in five voters told both of the polls we have so far that they didn’t know, or were neutral. This will fall considerably as time goes by, and it remains to be seen how they will split between positive and negative.

But separately Opinium has some good news for Starmer. The public is far likelier to say they could see him as Prime Minister (+15 net) than Corbyn (-25 when first elected leader) and Ed Miliband (-35 in 2012 when first polled), which seems to fit with earlier qualitative evidence.

This question clearly measures first impressions, though that may be no bad thing for an opposition leader. Perceptions can of course change, in either direction, but it’s better to start off well than badly on such a key attribute.

Yet the voting intention numbers show very little impact at all, with neither poll showing any significant change in Labour’s fortunes since Starmer took charge. This compares with an average gain of 3.5 percentage points for new Labour and Tory leaders, back as far as – and including – Harold Wilson.

Yet the data – the source for which is Mark Pack’s PollBase – shows a lot of variation between the 30 days before and after the change of leader, with several getting no bounce, whereas Labour gained 11 points after Neil Kinnock took over from Michael Foot in 1983.

I would speculate that the lack of evidence of a new leader bounce reflects the circumstances rather than anything Starmer has or hasn’t done, or indeed the row over the leaked anti-Semitism report, which all of this polling pre-dated.

It’s hard to prove that, but the lack of cut-through (fewer than 1% named the Labour leadership election when Populus asked their most noticed news story) points more to a case of “no news is bad news” from Labour’s perspective.

What’s more, the initial bounce, or lack thereof, hasn’t historically been a great predictor of electoral fortunes. While those that went on to win did better on average (+4.7) than those than didn’t (+2.6), there is still plenty of noise. And it is, of course, still relatively early days.

But leaving to one side the changes, and thinking about the levels of the polls, how worried should Labour be about the voting intention figures? Well, current polling probably doesn’t tell you the likeliest outcome of the next general election. The Conservative lead is likely to be soft, as any lead this size usually is. (If it weren’t, the opposition could just pack up and go home now.)

It is obviously wrong to take these numbers at face value – they need to be seen in the context of everything that is going on. But even with the exceptional circumstances in mind, I’m not convinced that they are entirely meaningless.

The fact that up to 55% of likely voters are even considering voting Conservative seriously enough to tell pollsters they currently would, should be ringing Labour’s alarm bells. Even assuming the next election won’t see a 1931-type massacre (polls are in that sort of territory at the moment) it looks like the Tory ceiling is much higher, and the pool of potential red-to-blue switchers much broader, than had previously been thought.

Labour’s challenge includes detoxifying itself among the sorts of voters who had already made that switch in or before December. History shows that changing leader is a start, but only a start, and perceptions won’t change back overnight – not least because many of the gripes of voters who deserted Labour under Corbyn’s leadership predated it anyway.

We can say, then, that Labour’s mountain is huge, and its lack of visibility in the last week may have blunted or even stopped the customary new leader boost. But, if nothing else, Keir Starmer has started off by making a good first impression with the public. To be continued…

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Matt Singh is the founder of Number Cruncher Analytics

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.