If you are looking at voting intention or best Prime Minister figures to judge how well an opposition leader is doing, the first thing to note is that they are relative. It’s not just about how well the opposition are doing, it’s about how well the government are doing. Indeed, it’s probably mostly how well the government are doing – I am a great believer in the old truism that oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them. A really good opposition leader can pick holes in a government and force them into political errors, but primarily it’s a job of waiting for them to make a mistake, and making sure that when they do, you look like a plausible enough alternative for the public to place their trust in you.
Many of Starmer’s internal Labour party critics start with the absolute assumption that the Government are incredibly unpopular and that Labour should therefore be ahead of them. The reality is the Government’s figures really aren’t that bad and, on corona vaccination – the issue that currently dominates the agenda – are strikingly good. Looking at the Ipsos MORI polling this week, 38% think the government are handling corona well, 46% badly (negative, but not overwhelmingly so). 86% think they are doing well at securing vaccine supplies, 78% that they are doing well in rolling it out. For better or for worse, Boris Johnson has also delivered on his main election promise – getting Brexit done – and his own approval ratings appear to have bottomed out at the end of last year and have improved slightly since then.
As such, we’ve seen the Conservative party creep back ahead in the polls over recent months. At the tail end of last year the polls were broadly neck-and-neck. The Tories now clearly have a small lead again. Opinium and YouGov’s polls this week show a 5 point Tory lead, Survation a 6 point lead, Ipsos MORI earlier this month a 4 point lead. This is likely more a reflection of the Conservative Government’s recovering fortunes than anything Labour have or haven’t done. If we want to get a decent measure of public attitudes towards Keir Starmer, we need to look at figures asking directly about Starmer himself, rather than his relative position to the Government.
If we do that, then on the whole, Starmer’s ratings are at least acceptable. During the early part of his leadership there were very solid indeed, but over the last few months they have declined. His approval ratings are fairly neutral (Opinium’s last poll had 32% approving, 30% disapproving; Ipsos MORI has 40% satisfied, 35% dissatisfied; YouGov 39% good job, 37% bad job). These are significantly better than Boris Johnson’s current ratings, and better than his predecessors Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.
Looking at polling on perceptions of Starmer, YouGov gives him positive ratings on being strong, likeable, decisive and – especially – competence (42% see him as competent, 21% incompetent). Ipsos MORI finds strongly positive ratings for him on being decisive, and moderately positive figures on leading opinion and demonstrating a clear vision.
MORI also ask a regular question on if the opposition leader looks ready to be Prime Minister. 33% of people think Starmer does, 37% think he does not. Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband got figures ranging between 17%-31% thinking they looked ready to be Prime Minister, but consistently got in excess of 60% saying they did not. The positive figures may not be that different here, but Starmer’s negatives are far, far less than his predecessors. YouGov have a similar question, and found 33% think Starmer looks like a Prime Minister in waiting.
It is clear from the polling that Keir Starmer is seen by the general public as much more of a competent, plausible Prime Ministerial figure than his two predecessors. Whether that is enough is a different matter. I’ve frequently compared Starmer’s figures in this article to Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. By that yardstick they’re not bad at all. But compare them to Tony Blair, or even to David Cameron, the last two leaders of the opposition to actually go on and become Prime Minister, and they look less positive.
It’s also worth underlining that the direction of movement for Starmer is currently negative. Lots of leaders have positive ratings to begin with (think of how positively rated Theresa May was to begin with, for example). At the moment it looks as if the way that Keir Starmer presents himself has chimed enough with the public for them to give him a serious hearing and to remain open-minded on whether he’d make a good Prime Minister. It looks as if Starmer has managed to win the opportunity to be heard, but having that opportunity doesn’t mean he won’t fluff it.
Obviously Keir Starmer is not yet in a position to win a general election. We won’t know until after the boundary review exactly what sort of lead the Labour party would need to win an election, but to get an overall majority on a uniform swing then without some degree of political realignment they’d need a very substantial lead indeed and at this point, Starmer has no lead at all. I suppose for those within the Labour party, it depends exactly how much one can reasonably expect from leader who inherits a party that has just suffered one of its worst ever general elections, its fourth in row, and has spent the last five years busy in internecine warfare.