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17 June 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 12:31pm

Labour is closing in on the Conservatives but it still faces an electoral Everest

The public perceptions of weakness and untrustworthiness which have plagued the party for a decade still do today. 

By Ben Walker

More than two months have passed since Keir Starmer ascended to the Labour leadership. In that time, the proportion of Britons struggling to muster a view of him has fallen from 50 per cent to less than 20 per cent.

Those only just acquainted with the new Labour leader offer warm thoughts, with some polls showing him tying with or even beating Boris Johnson on public favourability. 

The Conservatives’ lead over Labour is at its lowest point since before the general election (falling as low as two points in one survey). And Starmer’s popularity is not just confined to those who value his methodical approach. Large portions of the country view him as competent, decisive, and even – whisper it – likeable, three key traits that often eluded Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition.

Who leads in the polls?

But every headline success is filled with caveats. Starmer’s ability to exploit and ride the wave of growing public scepticism towards the government has narrowed the Tory lead and established him as a serious public figure, but it hasn’t set Labour on the road to government – far from it. There are still immense challenges facing the party that it will need to confront over the weeks, months and years ahead if it wants to successfully scale the electoral Everest of returning to power

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Labour’s challenges

1. Brexit

In May and June, Opinium asked voters whether they’d associate Johnson and Starmer with certain phrases and traits. The figures are notable – the changes in the space of a month even more so. On every measure, be it trustworthiness, likeability, strength, or perceived willingness to stand up for the country, Starmer has seen substantial improvements.

Public opinion on Keir Starmer

The same cannot be said of the Prime Minister, who on every measure over the last month has averaged a fall of 11 points. 

Nonetheless, Johnson still leads the Labour leader on measures such as bravery, being able to take big decisions, and then get said decisions done. It’s in areas such as competence and strength where the Prime Minister has fallen furthest – indicative perhaps of his handling both of the Dominic Cummings saga and the general Covid-19 crisis. 

Public opinion on Boris Johnson

What does this all have to do with Brexit, though? Well, one of the areas in which Johnson still leads Starmer decisively in this survey is, indeed, Brexit. On the question of who is best able to negotiate with the EU, voters give Johnson a lead over Starmer of eight points: 39 per cent to 31 per cent. 

Though the Covid-19 crisis still constrains Britain from normality, polls even now show “normal politics” returning. The number ranking Brexit as an important issue is up from 35 per cent in May to 43 per cent today.

On Brexit alone, Starmer and Labour would struggle against Johnson and the Conservatives. The former’s recovery in the polls is disproportionately due to Remain voters. The number of Leave voters who say they intend to vote Labour is virtually unchanged on 2019.

The extent to which post-Covid-19 British politics will still be defined by the Leave/Remain divide has yet to be seen, but it’s evident that in a close contest, Brexit could still prove to be Labour’s electoral Achilles’ heel. 

2. Labour’s image

Though the polls have narrowed and the Tory lead stands capped at single figures, Labour still has serious brand problems to tackle.

The first one, as mentioned earlier, is that a little over 50 per cent of Britons do not believe the party is yet ready for government. Added to this, a small single share of voters view the party as strong, which compares poorly with the Conservative Party, where that figure stands at nearly one in three.

Compare these numbers with how voters rate Starmer, and it’s clear that the Labour leader outperforms his party. The same public perceptions of weakness and untrustworthiness which plagued Labour ten years ago still do so today. The difference, however, is that these perceptions are shifting in the party’s favour, and that its leader is currently perceived in opposition to them.

3. Labour’s voters

Scoring high personal ratings in political surveys devoured by journalists won’t get you the keys to Downing Street. The game is to advance your vote share and win back seats. And again, with every headline, come several caveats.

Labour’s recovery under Starmer is not due to Tory voters defecting to the opposition, but rather two things. One is that he’s seemingly cut support for the Liberal Democrats by a third; and the second is that he has been able to consolidate his base more than Johnson has. Nearly one in five 2019 Conservative voters, according to the latest Opinium survey, are undecided about whether they would stick with the party if an election were held tomorrow. By comparison, just 8 per cent of Labour’s 2019 vote feel uncertain about their political home.

Nonetheless, the Tories still lead Labour, and at the last election one in ten 2017 voters switched to the Conservatives. No evidence yet in polling crossbreaks suggest that this has been reversed. 

While Labour’s national poll rating has risen by four to seven points since the 2019 election, in Wales the party is at a virtual standing start. YouGov’s latest barometer found that one in ten of Labour’s 2019 voters had switched to Plaid Cymru, but also that the party had won enough support from former Lib Dem voters to compensate.

It is not enough for a party to stand still. If an election were held today, Labour, fattened with Lib Dem converts, would be able to charge at the “Red Wall” with a coalition of voters more loyal than those committed to the Tories, but that would not flip more than a few dozen seats.

4. Scotland

Without a recovery in Scotland, the mountain for Labour to climb will be at a virtual 90-degree angle. The next general election is at most four years away. During that period a parliamentary election in Scotland will be held in 2021 with all polls pointing to the SNP – vociferous in its desire to hold a second independence referendum – winning another majority. 

Voting intention polls both at the start of the year, on the eve of Brexit Day, and in June, during the current crisis, have found slim majorities for independence. That the Yes movement benefited from Brexit was unsurprising, but that support for independence has endured during a pandemic and recession is something worth sitting up and paying attention to.

Voting intentions on Scottish independence

Starmer has had a successful few months  undoubtedly the most successful of any opposition Labour leader since Tony Blair. Unlike in the situation Blair inherited, however, Starmer’s party trails the Tories and has ten years’ worth of public perceptions to overturn*. Politics might be in flux, votes might be more fluid than ever, but there is no way to describe Labour’s challenge as anything other than an electoral Everest.

*An often forgotten fact is that during the late John Smith’s leadership, public opinion towards Labour shifted from one in five having a favourable opinion to three in five (Gallup).