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Starmer is the most popular leader of the opposition since Blair – so why isn’t LAB ahead?

June 19th, 2020

From Keiran Pedley – now of Ipsos-MORI

It is fair to say that Keir Starmer has made a positive start to life as Labour leader. Our latest figures from the Ipsos MORI political monitor show that 51% of the British public are satisfied with the job Starmer is doing, 20% are dissatisfied and 29% don’t know. 

Starmer’s net satisfaction score of +31 has never been beaten by a leader of the opposition in the 40+ years we have been tracking public attitudes to them. Blair achieved a score of +31 in December 94 and +30 in March 95. Cameron achieved a score of +23 in April 09, with a similar proportion satisfied to Starmer but higher levels of dissatisfaction. Nobody else comes close.

Yet when we look at our latest voting intention figures, Labour still trail the Tories by 5 points. The gap has closed from a lead of 22 before Starmer took over but the question remains: if Starmer is so popular, then why are Labour still behind?

First, we should acknowledge that the party leader is only part of the story when it comes to voter preferences – the party brand matters too. Our polling shows that Labour went into the last election seen as more ‘divided’ and ‘extreme’ than the Tories and less ‘fit to govern’. Some 48% were unfavourable towards the party, with just 32% favourable. Whilst the proportion of the public that is unfavourable has fallen 9 points since then, the proportion that are favourable has barely moved (31%). It will take time to repair Labour’s reputation with the voters, even if the public do tell us they expect Starmer to change the party for the better (46%) not the worse (9%).

Another part of the explanation can be found in public attitudes to Johnson and his government. 48% are satisfied with the job Johnson is doing as Prime Minister and 49% are dissatisfied. Johnson’s net score of -1 is nowhere near as bad as Major achieved when Blair recorded his best satisfaction rating (-56) or Brown achieved when Cameron had his (-28). Similarly, net satisfaction with Johnson’s government stands at -11, which compares favourably to the ratings achieved by Major’s government (-78) and Brown’s government (-47) at the same time. 

In short, whilst Starmer is achieving sky high satisfaction ratings, the current government and Prime Minister are nowhere near as unpopular as those faced by Blair and Cameron. In fact, the public still view Johnson as the more capable Prime Minister over Starmer, by the slender margin of 43% to 38%. So Starmer has not sealed the deal with the electorate yet. 

Clearly there is still work to do for team Starmer if they are going to get their man into Number 10. Labour needs to discredit the current government and Prime Minister more in the eyes of voters and make progress with demographic groups that have been hostile to the party in the recent past. 

This second point is important and worth reiterating. Labour’s problems with certain voters have not disappeared with Jeremy Corbyn. Our latest figures show the Conservatives holding a 27-point lead over Labour with those aged 65 and over. The party’s problems with leave voters, in Scotland generally and in the south-east of England are also well documented. 

However, the scale of Labour’s task should not detract from how good Starmer’s personal ratings are 2 months in.  Not even Blair had a score of +31 after 2 months. Though by the time he reached +31 in December 1994, Labour were 39 points ahead in the polls, right now they are still behind.

Therefore, Starmer’s challenge is to consolidate his good start and then try to turn public goodwill towards him personally into Labour votes. Whilst 42% of Conservative voters and 52% of Lib Dems think Starmer is doing a good job – they are not yet saying they will vote Labour.  Meanwhile, although 48% of those aged 65+ are satisfied with the job he is doing, 6 in 10 say they will vote Conservative.  

Nevertheless, the direction of travel is positive for Labour. The numbers show they have replaced the least popular leader of the opposition in 40+ years with one of the most – at least for now. The Conservative poll lead has shrunk since the election and the government faces serious challenges ahead navigating the COVID fallout and Brexit. If Starmer can sustain the positive first impression he has made with the public and that rubs off on his party, we should expect Labour poll leads to follow, especially if satisfaction with the government falls. 

This does not mean Labour wins the next election but earning the right to be heard again after such a big defeat in December will be a start.

Keiran Pedley

Keiran Pedley is Director of Politics at Ipsos MORI and tweets about polling and public opinion at @keiranpedley