Parliament remains in recess for Easter but with local elections on the horizon, politics is going into overdrive.
If the run-up to the poll in May feels more intense than most local elections, it’s because both parties know a general election is not far away: this is a dry run for the main event. And it is underlining the weaknesses in both the main parties.
The Conservatives cannot escape their long record in power. Be it because of the sewage scandal, potholes and strikes, or the grind of the cost-of-living crisis, few of the problems facing the Britain they have been governing for 13 years can be solved in short order. Just one in four think the party is fit to govern, according to one Ipsos poll.
For Labour, it appears to be Keir Starmer himself. He has been leading the party for three years but – still – one of the most common refrains you hear from voters is that they don’t know what he stands for.
[See also: Is Keir Starmer doomed?]
Sunak’s approval ratings are improving, and are now neck and neck with Starmer’s (32 per cent) – despite the Conservatives being some 23 points behind Labour, according to Ipsos Mori.
Starmer has been viewed more positively since Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-Budget last autumn sent the economy into a tailspin, but the latest figures represent a dip. Whereas David Cameron’s approval rating in 2009, a year after the banking crash, was regularly hitting the 50 per cent mark.
Starmer became leader while the country was battling a global pandemic, which may have a drag effect on how voters feel about him. It is vital for new leaders to establish themselves in the public’s mind early, and Starmer had little choice but to spend months supporting whatever Covid measures Boris Johnson’s government implemented. It may also explain why Labour has attempted a dizzying number of different slogans and relaunches since then.
Yet the Labour leader still lacks a big idea that encapsulates how he will run the country, even if he can claim credit for reforms that have improved the party’s overall poll rating.
Some insiders blame Deborah Mattinson, the party’s director of strategy, for an over-reliance on focus groups, and say they want the party to be bolder. I wrote about the divides between “Ming vasers” who put safety and fiscal discipline first, and those who crave a bolder election campaign a couple of weeks ago.
Opposition MPs are increasingly frustrated that Starmer will not accept their advice, and that he has a very small circle of trust.
The Labour leader has been under attack from Conservatives and the Labour left in recent months due to Labour’s huge lead and internal party reforms. But the scrutiny will only escalate ahead of a general election he will be expected to win. It remains unclear if he has built enough trust with the public to withstand that pressure.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter on 5 April; 2023; subscribe here.
[See also: Keir Starmer’s manifesto: Labour’s Five Missions]