Thursday 3 November 2022

Why Starmer Trails Sunak

Unlike Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak did get a new PM bounce. From ridiculous polls leads ranging between 29 and 39 points, the former chancellor has pulled the numbers back from extinction-level events to an absolute battering. So well done him. But more interesting are the personal ratings. Opinium report a preference for Sunak on the economy over Keir Starmer, and according to Redfield Wilton their survey said more would have the Prime Minister as the Prime Minister than the Leader of the Opposition. How to explain the discrepancies?

For one, Sunak is a known quantity. He's not as popular as he was, but for most he's remembered as the Chancellor who kept millions afloat as the economy shut down in the first wave of Covid. Never mind there were significant gaps and that the scheme was first touted by, horror of horrors, Jeremy Corbyn, he's the one who fronted it. Second, he was spared much of the sleaze from Boris Johnson's premiership. His role in the Party Gate saga was, as generally accepted by the press, a genuine mistake of wrong place at the wrong time and not one of egregious, reckless, and wilful rule breaking. His other difficulties, which include his holding a Green Card while a member of the government, his significant other's non dom tax status, and the initial paltry offering of energy bill support haven't attracted visceral loathing. And lastly, his political mistakes - the ridiculous and ruinous Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and his bringing back Suella Braverman haven't harmed his personal standing. Yet.

And Starmer? One thing his purge of the left, refusal to make the case for anything unless the public are already onside, and attempts to outflank the Tories from the right on policing, immigration, national security, etc. has accomplished is political distance from the Corbyn years. Unless you're gullible enough to buy into desperate Tory rhetoric, most people accept that Starmer is Corbyn's sequential successor. Nothing more. This is an advantage when it comes to being the repository of anti-Tory anger, but means the ridiculous poll leads are a reaction to what's happened and not enthusiasm for the Labour leader.

Does this matter when the polls are this wide? It does. Common sense and history suggests no governing party comes back from these kinds of deficits. But that's not entirely true. The early Thatcher years saw strong Labour leads under Michael Foot, including a couple of polls with a 30-point margin. But what did for him was not the "longest suicide note in history" nor the party's factional divisions, nor the formation of the SDP. It was that General Galtieri rode to Thatcher's rescue by invading the Falklands and kicking off an orgy of British patriotism. We know what happened next. It's a cautionary tale of events dear boy, events. However, 2022 is not 1982, and it's unlikely any singular event could pull huge numbers behind the Tories again as we saw a a couple of years ago. The rot has gone too deep, and the long-term decline has begun its inexorable grind.

For his part, Starmer and the shadow cabinet avoided looking smug as pollster after pollster put Labour at 50%+, and he is apparently in agreement with the left and everyone else that he's benefiting from not being the Tories. It's a big lead, but a soft lead. The question is what's he going to do about it. Perhaps use the occasion to lead public opinion, rather than tailing it? No. For the last month Labour's show pieces have been a playing down of expectations - an echo of the 'two Eds are better than one' austerity lite of the Miliband years, and ramping up the authoritarianism. Just Stop Oil protesters are the greatest threat to medical emergencies, not the lack of ambulance crews and overfull A&Es. Despite admitting to his allies that Labour is merely a default anti-Tory option, he's not taken advantage of the crisis moment where millions are receptive to alternative political messages. And now Sunak is the new kid on the block, the chance to consolidate Labour's vote has been lost. With the numbers as they are, it might not matter, but foolish is the political strategy that leaves so much to chance.

Frequently on the left, the equivalence between Starmer and Tony Blair is made. An understandable one, but mistaken all the same. This is because while Blair made sure Labour's promises didn't frighten the horses and, more importantly, the editorial offices of the Tory press, he also understood the importance of cultivating a positive case for New Labour. This was largely rhetorical and based on vague senses of change and hope - something adopted from the Clintons, and then recycled by Obama. The cultural zeitgeist played its part too. Starmer does not have this, nor has tried cultivating anything like it. To seal the deal, to capture anything like Blair's genuine popularity, he's going to have to show leadership. And that can only only come if he starts making the political weather and does it in such a way that says Labour has something worthwhile and positive to offer.

Image Credit


Duncan said...

Excellent analysis as always - thanks. Looking at the two polls that came out Thursday (YouGov and Redfield and Wilton), YouGov has the gap at 25% and Redfield and Wilton at 17%. Previous polls have all been above 20% except an Opinium one on Sunday at 16%. Thus I'm hoping the 'Sunak bounce' is less of a bounce - with the 17% and 16% outliers.
It is extraordinary given how all age groups except the over 55s are supporting Labour in mountainous proportions, that Starmer exclusively panders to those over 55s (who have not voted - and are unlikely to vote Labour) and their prejudices (listed in the article and the photo). Anyone under 55 really is ignored.

Robert Dyson said...

Just like Duncan, I agree. It is not complicated. Starmer hopes to win by not taking risks instead of having policies and explaining and selling them. My own guess is that the double austerity to be suffered for a bit now is just so that when the next election looms Sunak will say "thanks to the sacrifice of the British people this past year and my government's excellent fiscal management we are back in a better place" and the money taps will open. The rug will be pulled from under Starmer's feet. I note that the PM has learned from LOTO that once in position you can safely ditch all those pledges you made to get there.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

I don't think Starmer is capable of making the political weather or creating a worthwhile and positive offering to the electorate. He is a cautious, risk averse man who seems terrified of saying anything that hasn't been carefully vetted and checked to make sure it won't offend his idea of the "typical" voter. This seems to be, as @Duncan implies, a red-wall, Pro-Brexit, social conservative ex-Labour voter of a certain age. I assume this is because his 'advisers' have assured him that the progressive vote is in the bag, so no need to offer them anything. As a result, they are chasing the Tory vote to the right. Unfortunately, Starmer doesn't have the mettle to do anything else, so we are stuck with his "I'm dull but careful and the only alternative to the Tories" line.

PurplePete said...

It's not really about Starmer is it? Starmer role, as you say, is one-dimensional and simple: 'do not frighten the horses', within the general electorate. But behind Starmer's well-scrubbed, gauche and pudgy-faced public fa├žade there is a thuggish institutional machinery, called the Labour Party.
For many on the left, the Labour Party has become toxic. The leaked report (The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019), the subsequent (and delayed) Forde Report and the Al Jazeera's three part series 'The Labour Files' is all the evidence anyone with 'left leanings' needs, in order to be 'very frightened indeed', if this lot ever get into power.

I'm currently enjoying Alexei Sayle's podcasts. Alexei has taken a justifiable dislike of Starmer. I particularly like his latest one:

Alexei's Radio 4 'Imaginary Sandwich Bar', are also very entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Hang about - Politico's "poll of polls" (last updated 31st Oct) has Labour on 51% and Cons on 25%. Where is the so-called Sunak bounce? Cons are fuckd.

Duncan said...

The latest Opinium poll (always the polling company that has the lowest gap between Con and Lab - and the lowest for Labour (being the only pollster that never had Labour above 50% in the last month)) from 2-4 Nov, has Con at 28% (no change from Opinium's previous poll on 26-28 Oct), and Labour on 46% up 2% from the previous poll (26-28 Oct when Lab was at 44%). So with the polling company that gives the very lowest polling to Labour and the narrowest gaps, there has been no change for Con and a 2% rise for Labour, with the gap between Con and Labour increasing from 16% to 18%.
(I know this is all hair splitting, but for those of us who dislike the Tories and want them defeated, a possible petering out of the so called "Sunak bounce" should be welcomed!)

M said...

And, given the title of this post, that poll also shows Starmer back in the lead as best PM. The pollster referred to at the start of the piece has a question wording on this that is particularly suited to the incumbent.

Blissex said...

«Con at 28% [...] and Labour on 46%»

There is a convention (which I think is knowing prevarication) to report both election results and opinion poll numbers as percentages, and of those who actually expressed a vote or an opinion. Here are for example the results of elections for some decades with percentages of the number of electors:

year Lab % Con % other %
1974 29.4% 29.9% 15.3% Lib.
1974 28.6% 26.1% 13.3% Lib.
1979 28.1% 33.3% 10.5% Lib.
1983 20.1% 30.8% 18.4% SDP+Lib
1987 23.2% 31.8% 17.0% SDP+Lib
1992 26.7% 32.6% 13.9% LDP
1997 30.9% 21.9% 12.0% LDP
2001 24.1% 18.8% 10.8% LDP
2005 21.6% 19.8% 13.5% LDP
2010 18.9% 23.5% 15.0% LDP
2015 20.1% 24.4% 13.6% LDP+UKIP
2017 27.5% 29.1% 5.1% LDP
2019 21.6% 29.4% 7.8% LDP

The latest 2022-10-05 Opinium poll had 2023 asked, 729 (36%) Lab, 344 (17%) Con, 428 (21%) other, 521 (26%) won't vote or don't know. There is no obvious Lab surge, but there is a large switch from Con to other parties.