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26 February 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:27am

Should Labour be attacking the government over its pandemic response?

Keir Starmer has failed to convince voters he would have handled the pandemic better, but he has a chance to win ground by focusing on the economy.

By Ben Walker

No one remembers who was ahead a mile into a marathon, and no one really remembers who was winning halfway through. We only remember the finish.

Covid-19 should not be like that: more than 120,000 people in the UK have died. How we got here could hardly matter more. And yet, polling data since January suggests a distinct shift in favour of the government when judging competency in handling the pandemic.

According to Opinium, there has been a notable fall in the number of people who disapprove of the government’s handling of the Covid crisis: the number is now at its lowest since July 2020. This is in addition to the increase in Conservative voting intentions and increased approval ratings for Boris Johnson, which are seemingly caused by the vaccine roll-out. It is possible the UK public has its eyes so firmly focused on the finish line that it will be prepared to forgive – or forget – what came before.

Boris Johnson has enjoyed a vaccine bounce in the polls
Britain Elects poll tracker of the public’s preference for Prime Minister

So, should the opposition parties’ strategy be to go hard on the government’s handling of Covid? Given that the response to the vaccine roll-out has been overwhelmingly positive, and Brits appear to link the government’s general handling of the crisis to the roll-out, the answer they should lean towards is “no”. Why should the opposition attack the government on something people are now viewing with increasing favourability? After all, according to Savanta ComRes, most people in Britain think the general public, not the government, are primarily responsible for the rise in Covid-19 infections at the start of 2021.

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The coronavirus crisis is often treated by the media like any other political story – one of gossip, leaks and incomplete information. It shouldn’t be: it’s a subject that many voters regard as being above politics. In April 2020, almost two-thirds of Brits told YouGov that for the duration of the coronavirus crisis they would support a government of national unity.

This helps us understand why the Conservative Party is, despite unfavourable excess death statistics, doing so well. The public is unconvinced any other leader would have handled this crisis better. YouGov polling shows that Keir Starmer outperforms Boris Johnson on decisiveness and competence, but when people are asked about the specifics of whether Starmer would have been more capable of tackling Covid-19, the answer is unclear.

In February, Opinium asked voters whether the Labour leader would have done a better or worse job at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Thirty one per cent said he would have done better; 21 per cent said he would have done worse; and 30 per cent said he would have made no difference. And while white-collar workers are more certain Starmer would have done better than Johnson, blue-collar workers lean in the opposite direction: 36 per cent think he would have made no difference in tackling the pandemic.

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On the vaccine roll-out, Starmer performs worse. Just 19 per cent think he would have handled it better than Johnson, while 39 per cent think he would have made no difference and 23 per cent think he would have done a worse job.

These numbers aren’t terrible for Starmer, but they’re not great. If Team Starmer were hoping to position their leader as a breath of fresh air on the dominant issue of the day, they have failed.

Going hard on the government’s handling of a major topic when you’re not perceived to be a better alternative is fraught with danger. It reminds people not just that they think person A is no better than person B, but also makes room for accusations of “Captain Hindsight”, “playing politics”, “failing to rally around our leader/institutions” and so on.

You may say that the job of a leader is not to follow blithely in the wake of public opinion, but rather to shape it.

My response would be that if we are in the final months of Covid, it might be more fruitful to deal with issues in the here and now, as opposed to the talking points of 2020. Talk not of Covid but the economy, jobs and finances. Some of these are issues on which Labour is competitive – and issues on which the public isn’t blaming itself. 

At present, Labour is most certainly not competitive on the overarching theme of the economy. When the public are asked on who they’d “trust more to handle the economy”, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak lead Keir Starmer and Anneliese Dodds by a margin of 13 percentage points (38 per cent to 25 per cent). Fifteen per cent of current Labour voters say they are unsure, compared to just 3 per cent of current Conservative voters.

But this is actually an improvement for Team Starmer compared to the middle of the 2019 election campaign. In an Opinium poll taken in October 2019, 21 per cent of voters rated Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell as being best able to handle the economy, while 39 per cent favoured Johnson and his chancellor at the time, Sajid Javid.

An improvement of four points might seem meagre, and at one point Corbyn did score better (albeit for a very short while), but the gain seems to be because of a consistent transfer of Liberal Democrats leaving the fence to sit with Starmer. While it is unlikely to show in the headline voting intentions, a Labour leader attractive to Lib Dem voters is likely to prove important in key Labour-Tory marginals.

Voters can view the economy through many prisms, but for now we can keep things simple. There is the macro element: debt, GDP, etc. Then there is the micro element: the cost of living, wages, efficiencies, and employment.

On the former, the polling we have suggests that the Conservatives have maintained an almost consistent lead over Labour for over a decade. On the latter, it is a closer race. 

In its 11 February poll for the Observer, Opinium surveyed voters on some of the more granular aspects of the economy and found a Labour lead on public services. On the debt and deficit – issues that featured heavily in 2010 and 2015 election campaigns – the Tories were dominant.

On the debt and deficit, the Tories dominate; but on public services Labour holds a lead of 6pts
“Which government do you think would be better at…?”

Con/Lab options were “A Conservative government led by Boris Johnson” and “A Labour government led by Keir Starmer”

On the issue of efficient spending of government money, meanwhile, the Conservatives lead Labour by a margin of six points.

This might be a clue to how Labour should “handle” Covid. Rather than directly attacking the government on an issue regarded by voters to be above party politics, it might be more effective to look at the longer-term effects of the government’s decisions on issues where Labour is already strong: personal finances and public services. Because one thing is clear: Covid’s devastating social and economic effects won’t magically disappear when the last arm is jabbed. It might be true that we tend to focus on the finish line more than the race, but that finish line might not be where the Conservatives think it is.

Winston Churchill lost the election of 1945 not because of his handling of the war – an issue, for the most part, viewed as above electoral politics – but rather because voters didn’t regard him as best able to rebuild the nation to a satisfactory state of peace. In post-Covid Britain, voters might just be more willing to entertain party politics than they do now. And it is there that Labour might find fruit.