There is much work still to do. But Starmer’s message on competence is working

Sienna Rodgers
© Twitter/@Keir_Starmer

The Labour leadership has received a fresh boost today with the release of new polling by YouGov for The Times. On the question of preference for Prime Minister, Savanta ComRes found Boris Johnson on 43% and Keir Starmer lagging behind on 30% in a survey conducted over the weekend. But the latest YouGov findings, covering Tuesday 18th and Wednesday 19th, are much better news for the opposition’s new top team: Starmer is shown to be up three points to 35%, while Johnson has been overtaken as he has dropped slightly to 31%.

It is difficult to look prime ministerial when you’re not already in 10 Downing Street, and this is something that Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband struggled with when they led the main opposition party – partly because the right-wing press worked hard to portray them as both dangerous radicals and unphotogenic fools. We could explore at length the extent to which prejudices play a role in this competition to be seen as prime ministerial, but the bottom line is that local party nomination meetings across the country this year saw Labour members cite Starmer’s quality in this regard as a reason for choosing him over his rival (female) candidates. And it looks as if the new leader is starting to deliver on this selling point.

The YouGov poll also shows movement in the right direction for Labour on voting intention, with the Conservatives dropping four points to 40% and Labour gaining three to reach 38%. And perhaps more importantly, the research shows Labour is now level-pegging with the Tories on the question of which party is the most competent. This is crucial for Starmer. The new leadership has been criticised by left members for going too soft on the Tories, and even by figures such as Alastair Campbell who say they haven’t been doing enough to force change on policy disasters such as the exams scandal. But its main focus has been on internal party reform, and the idea is that this makeover will contribute to the presentation of Labour as a competent party – and one ready for government by the time the next general election takes place.

Labour’s competency message was thought by some party activists to have been taken too far on the issue of migrant boat crossings, when the shadow immigration minister criticised the government’s response as revealing a “lack of grip and competence” rather than a lack of compassion (as Nick Thomas-Symonds later said). But the new YouGov polling says good things about Labour’s constant framing of government failures and dragged-out U-turns as proof that ministers are incompetent. The opposition needs to set out a big picture alternative – Starmer must tell us what he means by the leadership campaign strapline “another future is possible”, particularly at a time of crisis that lends itself to significant change – but step one of his plan to improve Labour’s image is proving effective so far.

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