If you listen to some commentators, you’d think Labour are now destined to be the largest party in parliament after the next election. Indeed, in some quarters, discussion has shifted from which party will win the election to just how big Labour’s majority will be.
The party has a 19% lead over the Conservatives on national voting intentioni, and has maintained an overall lead for two years. Labour is polling almost double the Conservative Party in Wales, and has crept up behind the SNP to be almost neck and neck in Scotland.
The paradox here is that, despite this impressive polling, voters’ opinions of Starmer and his party remain lukewarm. People certainly think Starmer is competent and reliable, and can imagine him in Number 10 (unlike either Jeremy Corbyn or Ed Miliband). But at the same time many struggle to differentiate him from Rishi Sunak, or state clearly what the Labour leader stands for or would do in government.
Anti-Tory sentiment fuels Labour support
So, why is Labour polling so well? Starmer’s work in rehabilitating Labour’s image has had a big impact. But more widely, as our new report shows, people are simply ready for a change. Over 80% of voters say the government looks tired and more than 60% say it is time for new leadership in Downing Street.
Much of the party’s success is down to the unpopularity of their rivals. Numerous scandals – from partygate to the mini-budget to a series of parliamentary resignations over misconduct – have led to a large drop in support for the Conservatives over the last 18 months. As it stands, six in ten voters do not think the Conservatives deserve to be re-elected at the next election.
Rishi Sunak’s personal brand has done little to turn the tide. The percentage of voters who believe he would make the best prime minister has dropped by 6 percentage points (now at 32% to Starmer’s 41%). Over 50% deem him to be incompetent, and his disapproval rate currently stands at over 60%.
On economic competence – traditionally a Conservatives strength, though the mini budget took its toll – a mere 21% of voters thought the Conservatives were the best party on the economy by November 2023. The party also trails Labour on management of the NHS and immigration.
Voters aren’t convinced by Labour on inflation, economy and NHS
“There’s not an overwhelming view that Starmer can be the change, but he’s certainly ahead of Sunak”
— UK in a Changing Europe (@UKandEU) December 5, 2023
Nevertheless, voters remain unconvinced that Labour will be able to cut inflation, grow the economy or improve the NHS. There is no particular enthusiasm for Labour’s proposals in these areas.
Voters simply think they would do a better job than the current government – which is hardly saying much given Tory poll ratings.
Simultaneously, the Conservatives are being squeezed in marginal seats in the South East and West of England by the Liberal Democrats, who are aiming to reel in socially liberal Conservative voters turned off by the party’s rhetoric on net zero and immigration.
Again, this dynamic is hardly evidence of Labour’s popularity – albeit it may help them to victory.
SNP woes are similarly boosting Scottish Labour
In Scotland, meanwhile, Labour has seen an improvement in its polling since 2019. The party is neck-and-neck with the SNP on Westminster voting intention, replacing the Conservatives as the plurality choice among pro-union voters and picking up some support among pro-independence voters.
Is this because Keir Starmer and the Labour party have swept the Scots off their feet? Not quite. Labour’s ratings on key issues such as education, health, the economy and ‘standing up for Scotland’ have not improved. Rather, those for the Conservatives and SNP have fallen – with the SNP suffering from a year of scandal and low support for Humza Yousaf.
Nor can the SNP take the votes of independence supporters as a given. With the prospect of a second referendum on ice, many Scottish voters say their priority at the next election will be “getting rid of the Conservative government” – and a vote for Labour is a means to this end.
Confronted with this lacklustre showing, many Labour strategists might simply respond “so what”? So what if the Conservatives, Lib Dems and SNP are doing the party’s job for it? Winning is winning, after all.
Many voters are still undecided
However, there are two reasons for concern.
First, the scale of the challenge. To win a majority of one, Labour must gain 124 seats including some they have not won since 2005. Anti-incumbency sentiment may help them, but it far from guarantees a meaningful majority – something Starmer will be keen to secure after over a decade out of government.
Second, around 16% of voters are still undecided. Many of these voted Conservative in 2019 and have been put off voting for them again for numerous reasons. However they have not yet shifted their support to another party.
And many of these voters are not former Labour voters who decided to give the Tories a go in 2019, but are rather historically ‘floating voters’. Over 40% have weak partisan ties and have voted for numerous different parties in the past. Their voting intention is now similarly spread across a range of parties.
This matters because these votes will be key in a number of marginal seats, including in the red wall, which Labour must win if they want a decent majority. Keir Starmer has been effective thus far in bringing Labour some of the way.
But Labour cannot achieve this goal by simply relying on the Conservatives’ unpopularity. Instead, they must now actively convince the country of the party’s competence and vision for the country.