Why can’t Starmer get Labour on top?
Even the most committed Conservative voter would have to admit that it has not been the greatest of years for Boris Johnson and his closest allies. The twelfth-hour Brexit deal and its continuing problems coupled with the stuttering and frequently contradictory handling of the Covid-19 crisis have seen the Prime Minister bluster and struggle under intense questioning despite his unflagging bravado. And
it isn’t just Johnson coming in for criticism.
The Priti Patel bullying allegations, Dominic Cummings’s eyesight-testing lockdown drive to Barnard Castle, Matt Hancock’s embarrassing TV interviews, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s smirking retort in Parliament that the fish rotting in Scottish markets post-Brexit were at least British fish, and “better and happier for it!” – any of these might be expected to have seen both the Prime Minister and his government’s approval ratings plummet. But they haven’t. They’ve stuttered and sagged but continue largely to hold their own when measured against those of Labour and its leader, Sir Keir Starmer.
Starmer was a clear winner in the Labour leadership contest last year, taking over from Jeremy Corbyn following the party’s heavy general election defeat. Arriving to great fanfare and enthusiasm, the new leader and the party did achieve an initial surge in the popularity stakes, both with regular Labour voters and amongst the wider electorate. And that was no mean achievement given Starmer had inherited a 20-point polling deficit.
The gap was not just narrowed but closed completely, and over 2020 Starmer frequently enjoyed leads over the Prime Minister in approval ratings. It looked, briefly, as though he would go leaping ahead. But that did not happen, and progress has now most certainly stalled. In recent polls, the parties have for the most part been neck-and-neck.
At this stage of the Parliament this is by no means disastrous for the Opposition. We are not even at mid-term and there are more than three years before the next scheduled general election. But while there are not yet serious rumblings of discontent within Labour, some in the party acknowledge that their leader remains too much of an unknown quantity to many of the British electorate.
So, most reckon it’s time for him to start saying more, and to say it loudly — if he is going to beat Johnson at his own game, it’s time for Starmer to make more of a splash.
What our surveys show
Since the start of the year we have been regularly polling our readers on how they would vote if a general election were held today – giving just three choices: Conservative, Labour or Other. Consistently it’s been that close-fought race with the two main parties swapping the lead almost daily. In our most recent poll on 27 February, Labour was just ahead on 39%, with the Tories on 37%. But in mid-February the Labour lead was higher.
A month earlier the Conservatives were in front. Interestingly, in every poll to date, the figure for those who would vote for a party other than Labour or Conservative has increased slightly. Secondly, we asked about the relative competence and leadership qualities of Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer. Most recently Starmer was substantially ahead, standing at 47% to Johnson’s 30%. But when we asked the same question last November the margin in favour of Starmer was greater at 54% to 28%. Tellingly, the “Neither is a good leader” and “don’t knows” have increased since November. All this suggests that Starmer is not currently making as great an impact as he and Labour would have hoped.