UK: Has Labour caught up?
Opinium’s poll over the weekend showed the two main parties tied on 40%, the first time Labour has caught up to the Tories since July 2019 when both were in freefall, losing votes to the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats respectively. This has got a lot of people very excited but bears some closer scrutiny.
What we may be seeing is the gradual unravelling of several effects which all conspired together to boost the Tories’ poll numbers to the peak of a 26 point lead and 55% of the vote as lockdown came in:
- The first is the traditional election victory honeymoon that would have happened anyway. The Tories won by 12 percentage points, Brexit “got done” and Labour turned to a leadership contest, tuning out the rest of the country. This was always going to dissipate to some extent as time passed.
- The second is the general “rally around the flag” effect that all incumbent governments (aside from Donald Trump) experienced as the pandemic set in and lockdown measures came in. This was when the Conservative lead peaked, as officer workers migrated to their living rooms and kitchens. Events have since taken their toll.
- The third is obviously the change in opposition leader and the gradual uptick in approval ratings for Keir Starmer, overtaking the prime minister in May and providing a focus for scrutiny of the government and comparison for voters.
The question therefore was not whether Labour’s vote share would catch up to the leader’s ratings but when. However, there are several warning signs for Labour to consider while they celebrate:
- Think of the circumstances that have had to occur for us to get to the stage where the opposition has tied with the government, a pandemic in which a majority of voters now consistently rate the government’s handling as poor along with an exams fiasco that has been even worse
- While this is the most positive poll result for Labour in over a year, it came out at the same time as other polls showing a Tory lead, suggesting that the “true” figure is one of a narrow but consistent Tory lead. This is consistent with the fact that the “preferred prime minister” question routinely shows a tie or a narrow Johnson lead
- This poll is also the first we have done where Starmer’s approval rating has dipped with the percentage who approve now the same as the percentage with a neutral view. It may be a blip (and, indeed, so may the two parties being at 40%) but if approval is a leading indicator then Labour may be about to fall back again
The final reason for Labour to keep the corks in the champagne bottles is a larger strategic one: Boris Johnson may not be their opponent in 2024. Starmer and Labour’s entire approach at the moment is, rightly in my view, focused on government incompetence rather than ideology and in this their two leaders are poles apart in terms of perceptions. While the wider work of getting voters to associate Labour with competence is a necessary precondition of victory, a strategy to defeat Boris Johnson is extremely vulnerable to the Conservatives swapping leader in the way that the party is infamous for throughout its history.
The poll in question, with tables and report, can be found here.