Slowly, but surely, perceptions of Labour are softening

Welcome to the first weekly poll and public opinion summary for the New Statesman.

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Welcome to the first of a new weekly series of summaries of the latest polls. I hope to cut through the data noise and deliver some clear impressions of what the UK thinks about key issues, and the implications for Britain's leaders. This week, we start with the Labour Party.

1. More Brits now view Labour as competent and capable

There's little question that Keir Starmer has impressed as a formidable leader of the opposition. Though his party is still behind in the polls, it does appear that slowly but surely, perceptions of the Labour Party are beginning to change.

Polling from JL Partners reports an increasing number of Britons now view Labour as competent and capable, with the number perceiving it to be divided falling from 59 per cent in January to 38 per cent in August.

The Conservatives, by contrast, have seen a fall in perceived competence and an increase in perceptions of being out of touch.

Labour is seen as more united since January
Share of voters who think [x] statement applies best to which party

2. Labour would win on the cost of living, but lose on the economy

Another intriguing find from the JL Partners survey is that Labour performs well on the cost of living, but poorly on the economy.

These messages may appear contradictory, but they aren’t. On a macro-level – on the financial affairs of the country at large – the Tories are perceived as competent. On a micro-level – when it comes to household finances and day-to-day spending – Labour does better.

Labour's trusted with the cost of living, but not the economy
Share of voters who think which party is best to deal with [x] issue

This was something the Conservatives exploited to great effect in 2015, doubling down on their macroeconomic message of steadying the ship in the face of “chaos with Ed Miliband”. The cost of living crisis wasn’t as great a pull: issues such as immigration and the SNP carried greater weight with English and Welsh voters during the campaign.

The poll covers other policy areas which could be seen as problematic for Keir Starmer. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is perceived to be almost as competent on immigration as Labour, for example. However, this is simply an expression of a long-term problem for Western social democratic and left-wing movements in winning support for their views on the issue; Starmer's own leadership has had little effect on this trend so far.

3. Conservative approval has been hit by A-levels and Covid-19

New Ipsos MORI polling surveyed this week adds more weight to the idea that the British public is falling out of love with both the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister.

The number of Brits with a favourable view of Boris Johnson dropped to 29 per cent in August, a fall of 12 points since July.

Public favourability towards the Tories was also hit hard. Only 28 per cent of voters now have a favourable view of the governing party – while 29 per cent are positive about Labour.

Tories see a drop in favourability since April
Share of voters with a positive/negative view of the Conservatives, Nov 2019 to Aug 2020

A notable trend for Labour since Starmer became leader has been a steady drop in the number of voters with an unfavourable opinion about the party. In the run-up to the 2019 election, nearly half of Brits viewed Labour negatively. That has now fallen to 39 per cent.

The number of voters viewing Labour positively, however, hasn’t risen at the same rate. This suggests Starmer has succeeded in detoxifying his party, but not necessarily endearing it to the wider British public – a crucial second step.

Has Keir Starmer detoxified the Labour Party?
Since Keir Starmer's election as Labour leader, the number of Brits with a negative view of the party has fallen to a record low

Keiran Pedley of Ipsos MORI says: “There is work to do for Labour to get voters to actively make the jump in terms of supporting them, as evidenced by stubborn Conservative leads in voting intention polls.

“On the Conservative side, our numbers show the reputation of the party taking a hit since July but this could well be a temporary thing. Given that they still lead in voting intention polls, it would be wise to reserve judgement on whether this is part of a more lasting trend until we see more data.”

4. The Conservatives still enjoy a lead over Labour

Despite growing unpopularity over their perceived poor handling of both the Covid-19 crisis and the A-level results debacle, the Tories have yet to fall behind on voting intentions.

Last week's Opinium poll for the Observer has Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck, the first voting intention since July 2019 failed to show anything other than a Conservative lead.

The latest from the Britain Elects poll tracker, which accounts for all voting intentions, continues to give the Tories a lead of five points.

At the height of the Covid crisis in April, the Tories were leading Labour by around 20 points, and they won the 2019 General Election with a lead of 11 points.

Britain Elects poll tracker
Weighted poll tracker of the latest UK/GB-wide Westminster voting intentions

Back-of-an-envelope calculations from the latest figures suggest that were an election held today, the Tories would either scrape through with a single-figure majority, or end up a few seats short.

On the other side of the aisle, Labour would look at netting 30-50 seats  a “Red Wall” much rebuilt, but nowhere near enough to win.

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman

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