Making social science accessible

21 Jul 2023

Politics and Society

Following by-elections yesterday, Sophie Stowers examines Keir Starmer’s prospects for the coming General Election.

Labour made history last night, overturning its highest ever majority in a by-election in a 21.4% swing in Selby. Such an exciting result seems at odds with the popular wisdom that Keir Starmer, though a nice enough guy, is simply a bit dull. In the weeks preceding the election, a series of U-turns has led to accusations that, in attempting to prove just how grown up and ready to govern it is, the Party’s platform has become boring, and was unlikely to animate voters in the three constituencies voting yesterday.

Starmer’s main focus in his three years as leader has been making Labour a party of government again after the historic defeat of 2019. Ironically, though, his focus on electability has been accused of having the opposite effect.  A cautious approach, so the argument goes, may have been a useful foil to the bombast of Boris Johnson, but voters struggle to differentiate between him and Rishi Sunak.

Indeed, over half of those asked say Starmer has said “too little” about what he would do if he were to win the next General Election, and 50% say they simply don’t know what he stands for. And in a country where 60% of the electorate think “things are headed in the wrong direction”, some argue there’s a need for radical, exciting policy change which Labour is too slow to provide.

Yet this isn’t stopping voters from expressing support for Labour- the result in Selby and 10% shift in support in Uxbridge shows that. Furthermore, the party has held a healthy lead in the polls for the last eighteen months and is leading the Conservatives when it comes to attracting unaffiliated ‘swing’ voters.

Perhaps a period of low-key – maybe even boring- government is what the public hankers after?

Over eight in ten voters are unhappy with how the current government is running the country, with the same number saying it is “time for a new team of leaders” in Number 10. A recent research project showed that citizens want leaders who have integrity, operate within the rules, and act transparently. 58% say how competent a candidate is very important when judging a potential PM.

Starmer is ahead of Sunak on key characteristics, such as honesty, competence and reliability. Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that he has maintained a steady lead over Sunak on the question of who would be the better Prime Minister.

More widely, even if Labour’s policy proposals thus far are hardly inspiring, they’re certainly popular. The party holds strong leads on health, the cost of living and education, to name but a few key issues. Perhaps more importantly, the public trusts Starmer to actually follow through and deliver on his promises – which cannot be said for Sunak.

Some have accused Labour, of being excessively cautious. Witness the scrapping of its commitment to spent £28bn a year on green energy But many voters see this as evidence of the ability to “be flexible as economic circumstances change”. Indeed, half of voters now say Labour would be more effective at getting value for public money, as compared to 22% for the Conservatives.

Why is this perception of competence so important? Well, firstly, because of voters’ dissatisfaction with the current government. Second, Labour has, in the past, been dogged by a sense among the public that it is simply not ready.

On the surface, the number of people who think Starmer’s Labour are ready to enter government isn’t that different to those for Miliband in 2015 or Corbyn thereafter. The key difference lies in the numbers of those who think Starmer is not yet ready – lower than those even for Cameron in 2010.

Starmer, in short, is regarded as more capable and ‘prime ministerial’ than his predecessors. Indeed, just 20% saw Corbyn as a capable leader, the figure for Miliband was a third. Though admittedly Starmer is only a few points ahead of Miliband by at 32%, Sunak is viewed much more negatively than Cameron was on the same measure in 2015- and Starmer is also ahead when it comes to other  important attributes for a Prime Minister.

Starmer may be low key and not particularly radical. It’s not clear that voters are enamoured with Labour’s policy platform. But they trust him to deliver it and think he’s more than capable of doing so. If the results in Selby and Uxbridge show anything, it’s that Sir Keir may actually come close to getting the keys for number 10 by virtue of being a bit boring.

By Sophie Stowers, Researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.

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