This piece by Sophie Stowers on public attitudes towards the Labour Party is taken from our recent report “The state of public opinion: 2023”. Read the full report here.
It has been a good few months for Labour. October saw the party overturn huge Conservative majorities at by-elections in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire, winning the latter for the first time. These followed victories in Selby and Rutherglen earlier in 2023, giving Labour three by-election swings of 20% in a single year- just one fewer than Tony Blair achieved as leader in the run up to the 1997 election.
These victories seemed to bear out the polls. Labour has been ahead of the Conservatives by an average of 20% in recent months, while consistently leading on support amongst ‘swing’ voters. The party also has an advantage on policy. When asked which party has the best policies, Labour leads on those which are most important to the public, including health, the cost of living, and the economy.
On the economy – the most important issue facing the country according to voters – the Conservatives suffered a collapse in their reputation for economic competence in the aftermath of the Liz Truss mini-budget. Faith in the ability of the government to tackle inflation and the cost of living is low, with 55% expecting the economy to worsen in the next year. Indeed, the party is unpopular with a range of voters – including homeowners (-46 approval), those whose financial situation has deteriorated in the last year (-65) and even those who expect their finances to improve in coming months (-32).
More generally, many voters are ready for a change. This government is obviously unpopular, even among those who voted Conservative at the last election. 65% of voters do not think the Conservatives deserve to be re-elected next time around.
After thirteen years of Conservative government, six in ten voters say it is ‘time for a new team of leaders’ in Number 10. Following numerous recent scandals – Partygate,the mini budget and ethics violations to name but a few – and after a long period of record inflation, eight in ten voters say they are unhappy with how the current government is running the country.
Sir Keir Starmer, moreover, has a lead over the Prime Minister on key characteristics such as honesty, competence and reliability, all of which are ranked highly by voters when judging a potential Prime Minister. Indeed, Starmer has led Sunak consistently on who can be trusted to ‘deliver the change Britain needs’, as well as who would be a better Prime Minister since early 2023.
The number of voters who believe Starmer is not ready for office is also much lower than was the case for either Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn during their leaderships. There does, then, seem to be a perception among many voters that Labour is finally ready for government.
Yet there are reasons for caution. Whilst public sentiment is anti Conservative, it is not overwhelmingly pro-Labour. Labour’s by-election victories have been in seats vacated by (mostly) Conservative MPs accused of misconduct or implicated in scandal. These are specific, one off contests in which voters have been motivated to mobilise against the incumbent in the aftermath of wrongdoing.
More widely, while the public’s feelings about the government are relatively clear-cut, both in polling and voting patterns, there is a hesitancy around Keir Starmer. Focus groups have described the Labour leader in varying terms, from ‘much of a muchness’ to ‘all fur coat, no knickers’. Voters also struggle to differentiate between him and Sunak, and do not know what the Labour leader stands for (47%). Over half of those asked said that Starmer has said ‘too little’ about what he would do if he were to win the next election.
Voters are also not quite convinced that Labour will do a good job in government on cutting inflation, growing the economy and improving the NHS. Rather, they just think they would do a better job than the current government- a low bar to clear given levels of disapproval about the incumbent’s performance. There is not overwhelming public confidence about Labour’s ability to deliver.
With a large poll lead for Labour, this might not seem relevant. Regardless of how unsure about Starmer or wary of his promises voters are, Labour seems on course to be the governing party after the next election.
But a significant proportion of voters stills say they are unsure how they will vote at the next election, split between a variety of anti-government parties, from Reform to the Greens. One thing a majority are sure of, though, is that they will vote. Many of them are 2019 Conservatives who ‘lent’ their vote to the Tories to ‘get Brexit done’ and were crucial to flipping red wall seats at the last election. If Labour wants to claim back contested seats in the North and Midlands, attracting these voters will be crucial.
Indeed, it is important to consider the scale of the challenge facing Labour. After a record defeat in 2019, the party needs to win 124 seats for a majority of just one. Anti-Tory sentiment may help Labour gain seats, but far from guarantees a majority- not least as an election is still some way off. To ensure that the public mood is not just ‘anti-Tory’ but proactively pro-Labour, and to win over those dithering ‘don’t know’ voters in key seats, Labour will have to boost the public’s confidence in its ability to deliver.
Propagating a ‘pro-Labour’ mood will also be important to bolster the party against any controversies or electoral wobbles it may face. For the moment, the recent drop-in support for Labour among ethnic minority (particularly Muslim) voters in the aftermath of the Israel/Gaza conflict could impact results in those constituencies with a large proportion of Muslim voters but will likely be counteracted by the party’s national popularity overall. When facing future controversies, the party may not be so lucky.
After Keir Starmer’s conference speech, polling showed an increase in the number of voters who believe the Labour leader has a ‘clear plan for the country’. It may be that a general election campaign will solidify his image and Labour’s lead with the public.
But the party cannot rely merely on Conservative unpopularity to do the job for them. If Labour wants to secure a healthy majority, it will have to do more to convince voters of its competence and vision for the country.
By Sophie Stowers, Research Associate, UK in a Changing Europe.