It has now been almost ten months since Keir Starmer succeeded Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership. He inherited a polling deficit of 20 points against Boris Johnson and, since then, has managed to narrow the gap, often enjoying leads over the Prime Minister in approval ratings. It took Corbyn almost two years to tie with his Conservative opponents on this metric; Starmer did it in five months.
This comeback in the polls may not be record-breaking, but it should be regarded as impressive. According to Ipsos MORI, in his first few months Starmer scored satisfaction ratings for a leader of the opposition that have not been seen since Tony Blair’s heyday.
But there are signs of stalling. According to the Britain Elects poll tracker, on public favourability Starmer’s ratings have stagnated since July 2020. He still holds a net-positive score among the public: more voters feel positive about him than do not. But his popularity has waned, with the share of British voters who feel unfavourable towards him slowly growing.
From July through to October, the number of Britons who felt positively about Starmer was 15 percentage points higher than those who felt negatively. The gap now stands at just less than ten percentage points.
It is inevitable that, the more voters learn about Labour’s new leader, the more they will feel unenthused by him. This is the reality of party politics. But it might also be worth considering that too-clever-by-half politicking at a time that demands clarity might in part be responsible, too.
When participants in Deborah Mattinson’s focus groups are invited to think of descriptions of the Labour leader, “absent”, “invisible”, “reserved” and “quiet” are some of the more polite responses. Respondents also empathise with sentiments that suggest the Labour leader is failing in his duty to get behind the Prime Minister during a national crisis.
But, more promisingly, “not Corbyn” is a sentiment often heard voiced about the new Labour leader, and while it might sound unenthusiastic, for some voters it might be all they need. Is it enough? National voting intentions suggest not, because the narrowing of the polls is more a consequence of Tory voters moving to undecided, rather than Labour making gains.
That said, before we make any definitive assessment of Starmer’s prospects, it is worth zooming out and remembering that snapshots of public opinion in the midst of a national crisis could have little bearing on elections in a post-Covid Britain. The Tories may be boosted in the polls as a consequence of a successful vaccine roll-out, but will it be a defining vote-winner in the next general election?
Consider this historical point. Upon his arrival at No 10 in 1940, Winston Churchill held record-breaking levels of voter satisfaction. Gallup regularly found 90 per cent of the population were satisfied with his leadership. But his ability and relevance to rally a nation and gain public support lasted only up until the end of the war in Europe, whereupon he was rapidly removed from office.
Priorities changed then and they might again now, either towards a craving for a return to normality or a desire for change.
The question, then, is whether Starmer is ready to capture that shift in sentiment. To many, he still remains an unknown quantity, less familiar to British voters than the First Minister of Scotland, according to a recent Opinium poll. But “unknown” does not mean “written off”. Perhaps members of the political bubble might be guilty of rushing to judgement; history, rather than political “instinct”, might prove a better guide – and, in historical terms, Starmer’s start as leader of the opposition is (numerically) positive.
Ed Miliband enjoyed two months as leader before the public turned against him. David Cameron, who became Tory leader in December 2005 and prime minister in 2010, enjoyed ten months of public satisfaction before voters who didn’t like him outweighed those who did.
So while the margins may have narrowed between Starmer and the Prime Minister, it is still encouraging that the Labour leader, almost a year in, is polling positive scores.
There are warning signs, of course. His net score is dropping. But while there’s no emphatic feeling in favour of him, there has been little emphatic feeling against him either. In the febrile world of modern politics, in which voters are fickle and hard to please, being “not bad” can be good enough.