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18 May 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 12:20pm

Keir Starmer shouldn’t worry about the polls. He should worry about his approval rating

In recent days Starmer's approval ratings have entered dangerous territory for the first time.

By Stephen Bush

Whether it is Mark Drakeford equalling Welsh Labour’s best-ever performance, having looked on the verge of disaster in the polls at the start of 2021, Alex Salmond winning the only majority in the history of Holyrood thus far having trailed by double digits in 2011, David Cameron’s surprise majority in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn’s hung parliament in 2017, or Boris Johnson’s landslide in 2019, recent political history shows approval ratings have been more indicative of election results than headline voting intention – particularly early on in a parliament.

So for that reason, I’m of the view that in general, it’s not all that important where the big two parties are polling outside of general election time. What matters is how they are performing on various fundamentals, of which leadership is the most important – though there are other metrics, such as trust on the big issues of the day, that are also important and in general more useful than voting intention. (In all but one of the above cases, voting intention began to move towards the picture suggested by approval ratings as polling day came into view.) 

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

Until now, Keir Starmer has been doing very well on this metric: his numbers have compared favourably to David Cameron, the last leader of the opposition to take his party into government. Indeed, even in the week before the local elections, they continued to compare favourably to Cameron’s. (I have used IpsosMori, the longest-running series on this question, for illustrative purposes, but the trend is pretty clear across different pollsters asking versions of this question.)

In the last week, however, they have uncoupled from Cameron’s ratings in a way that will make grim reading in the Labour leader’s office.

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Net satisfaction ratings for the most recent leaders of the opposition
Ipsos MORI data, charted by months since election as party leader

Opposition leaders tend to go through what I think of as the “opposition zigzag”: they get a big jump in approval when they are first elected, because that is when people first learn who they are. The trick here is just to introduce yourself well, because inevitably they enter the next stage, when they are not a new face any more but instead are cast in what is truly one of the most unattractive roles in British politics: that of the powerless whiner. There are exceptions to that: Ed Miliband from 2010-15 actually could influence things, because the Conservatives were in power only thanks to the support of the Liberal Democrats, whose political centre of gravity was closer to Labour. But whether you are Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, Keir Starmer in 2021, Tony Blair in 1995, Neil Kinnock in 1984 or Ted Heath in 1966, after you have taken the job, there is very little you can actually do if the government has a majority.

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In addition, whatever changes they have made to their party’s position in their first year are old news, but their new enemies are still fun and exciting to write about. A year into Cameron’s time as leader of the opposition, no one was inclined to be grateful for his repositioning of the Conservative Party as “now economically and socially liberal!”, but there was still a sizeable group of Tory MPs who disliked his liberal turn. Even Tony Blair’s ratings dipped in this period, it’s just that because he was incredibly popular in the mid-1990s, they dipped from “wildly adored” to merely “generally loved”.

There is an intriguing exception to this rule: Jeremy Corbyn, who exited his “who’s this fresh new face?” phase in much worse nick than any other opposition leader, but a year into the job was not experiencing a decline in his ratings. My evidence-free hunch is that this is because a year into his tenure as Labour leader, Corbyn saw off a coup against his leadership with a landslide victory in a confidence vote: which illustrated to casual observers a) that he was different from the previous Labour leader and b) he was the immovable leader of his party.

The opposition leader’s ratings tend to have a pretty reliable upward tick at election time, which is usually when most casual observers of politics tend to switch back on again. So, basically, there are three big tests any opposition leader has to pass to win. First, don’t mess up your first appearances as leader. Second, don’t mess up your general election campaign, because this is your opportunity to either confirm voters’ positive first impression or to overturn their negative one. And third, in the long period between those two things, don’t do stupid shit.

As leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer did a good job at passing the first test, and his ability to do the same job at the second test is unproven. What I think is proven, however, is the test he failed pretty hard at last week: don’t do stupid shit during the off-years. The basic competence test of any reshuffle is: a) work out who you can’t get away with pissing off in advance and b) don’t let those people leave the room until they are happy with what they’ve got.

The line to take in defence of Starmer (that most of the negative briefing emerged not from his team but Angela Rayner) simply does not work, because the thing that provoked uproar in the Parliamentary Labour Party wasn’t any of the “he said, she said” detail, but the very basic “Rayner demoted and wings clipped” briefing given to the Sunday papers, which bore all the unmistakable hallmarks of coming from the leader’s office. And in any case, everything that went wrong last week would have been avoided if they had simply done the basics of “don’t let your unsackable deputy leave the room until you have reached an agreement about her role and press-released it”.

[see also: Do Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner realise how much they need each other?]

Now, I don’t think that the fall in Starmer’s approval ratings can really be seen as a direct result of the botched reshuffle: most people haven’t heard of Angela Rayner, and although her approval ratings (of plus 4 per cent) are positive, they have to be considered in the context that just a quarter of people feel confident expressing any opinion about Labour’s deputy leader. But I think they can be seen as a reaction to his and the Labour Party’s overall response, which was basically to tell people that Labour is terrible, has had these results coming to it for a decade, perhaps longer. No wonder the Labour leader’s approval ratings are bad: even the Labour leader disapproves of the job he is doing!

So there are I think two possible positions here. The “long Starmer” one is essentially to say, well, look, the decline in his numbers is pretty similar to the last guy to take his party to government, and given the number of basics that his team is getting wrong, you can’t honestly say that there isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit for the Labour leadership to reach for. Start getting the basics right, and his approval ratings will surely improve. (Basic things, like announcing a policy more than once, so someone might hear about it, for instance.)

The “short Starmer” one is to say that the botched reshuffle is indicative: sure, no one normal noticed it, but they will notice other mistakes that will surely be along in short order. These mistakes will, inevitably, further pull at his approval rating.

At time of writing, it is hard to make a convincing case that the “long” position is more plausible than the “short” one.

[see also: If Labour is to have any hope of winning, Keir Starmer must champion electoral reform]