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10 November 2023

Why hasn’t Labour’s poll lead fallen?

As the cost of living remains voters’ main concern, splits over the Israel-Hamas war are not denting support for the party.

By Ben Walker

It’s been more than a year since Rishi Sunak entered 10 Downing Street. Since he was an improvement on the nadir that was Liz Truss, commentators have, unsurprisingly, been questioning whether he will spur a Conservative recovery. 

Yet thus far, nothing Sunak has done has improved the party’s chance of winning the next general election. Not the Windsor framework, not the Spring Statement, not “stop the boats”, or other policies announced by Suella Braverman. Nothing has changed the psephological reality that the Conservatives are expected to suffer a sizable defeat at the next general election, however unexciting Keir Starmer may seem.

However, has Labour’s response to the Israel-Hamas war hurt the party

The headline polls suggest not. Despite a backlash from shadow ministers, MPs and councillors over Labour’s refusal to back a ceasefire in Gaza, its lead hovers between 18 and 22 points, which is as large as it was in July and March. 

What’s behind this lack of change? Primarily it seems it is the cost-of-living crisis. Apathy towards the Conservative Party is sending more than one in ten former Tory supporters into Labour’s arms, with three in ten saying they wouldn’t vote in the next general election or are undecided as to who they’ll back. These few fundamental metrics of public opinion have been the only constant in this year of political drama. 

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And there is little prospect of the Israel-Hamas conflict changing this. Few voters feel able to express with confidence the side they favour. When Russia launched a full-scaled invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, UK opinion rallied almost instantly behind the Ukrainian cause. Attitudes towards Russia and Vladimir Putin hardened so much that fewer than 5 per cent of voters were expressing support for them. The same cannot be said in the case of the Israel-Hamas war. 

In May, 23 per cent of Britons sympathised with the Palestinians over Israelis. That doesn’t seem significant, but 10 per cent sympathised with Israel, while 19 per cent supported both sides equally. The rest didn’t know or didn’t care. Since Hamas’s 7 October massacre in Israel, sympathy for the Palestinians has fallen four points, while sympathy for Israel has risen by nine. 

But overwhelmingly, Britons either don’t know, don’t care or have sympathy with both sides. As a consequence, Israel-Palestine is not an issue that is shaping national voting intentions. The cost-of-living crisis is the first, second and third priority of enough voters to overwhelm feelings over the Middle East crisis. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 sowed anxiety over a new Cold War and European hostilities. The response to Gaza has been much muted. 

But that isn’t to say the issue won’t have an effect in the margins. While many voters prioritise the cost of living, there may be others who will vote based on the main parties’ stance on the Israel-Hamas war. In 170 constituencies immigration ranks as the third most important issue to voters.

Labour’s stance over Gaza could have an unforeseen impact on its success at the next general election, particularly if there is marked disaffection with the party over the issue from Muslim voters (as I wrote here). The problem for the Tories is that, at present, this disaffection is too disparate to dent the opposition’s poll lead.

[See also: How much longer can Rishi Sunak tolerate Suella Braverman?]

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