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7 October 2021

Keir Starmer’s conference speech polled better than Boris Johnson’s – but does it matter?

In focus groups shown the speeches, Starmer came out on top for content, agreeableness, and perceptions of competence.

By Ben Walker

When Gordon Brown took to the stage for his first conference speech as prime minister in September 2007, the Labour party was enjoying leads of ten, 11 and 13 percentage points in the polls. His party, and the nation’s media, were anticipating a snap general election – a November mandate for New Labour’s fresh Brownite agenda. Brown himself failed to curb expectations. He allowed the rumours circulate, and so the hype continued to build.

By the time Brown ruled out a snap election, David Cameron and the Conservatives had snatched the agenda, gifting the cameras a rousing performance at their Blackpool conference, where the shadow leader challenged Brown to a snap election. The Tories sought to capitalise on the issue about which the media and country were obsessing, and benefitted accordingly. As activists departed the northern city for their constituencies, Labour’s lead had all but vanished. This was a conference season and a “bottling” from a prime minister that pushed the polls and moved perceptions.

This year’s conference season comes at a time when the Conservative lead over Labour is clear, but brittle. Built on voters who have previously declared uncertainty about staying with the Conservatives, the Tory lead is not set in stone, and the events of both conventions could change things.

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Polling by Opinium has found that Keir Starmer’s speech went down better with voters than Boris Johnson’s.

The focus group were shown clips selected by the broadcasters of the two speeches, and Starmer’s came out on top for content, agreeableness, and perceptions of competence.

While Johnson’s speech was heralded as one of the best he’s ever delivered, more voters felt he had come across as out of touch (45 per cent) than Starmer (29 per cent) did.

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In addition, more of the focus group felt that Starmer showed he cared about ordinary people (68 per cent) than Johnson (46 per cent), and thought Starmer showed competence (62 per cent) compared to Johnson (just 49 per cent).

In terms of how the focus group responded to the speeches (or, at least, clips of the speeches), Starmer won. But is that enough?

This year’s conference season has been overshadowed by news of the developing petrol crisis. An issue that Starmer was criticised for not confronting enough in his conference speech.

In 2007, Cameron gave his party a boost in the polls because he seized the political agenda, because he talked about the issues voters were noticing. Did Starmer do the same?

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