Is Labour ready for government: What does the polling say?

Polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice has been back at Luther’s offices, taking our contacts and clients through whether Labour is ready for government.  Adam Thomas, Head of Public Affairs, and Callum Nimmo, Consultant, reflect on what they heard.

While Labour’s seemingly unassailable poll lead has been predicated on the Conservative Party’s misfortunes, Sir John explained how this could present a greater issue after the election. Based on the latest public opinion polling, he outlined five criteria for success set by Labour itself and evaluated the Party’s performance to date.

The takeaways:

  1. A more moderate image: In December 2019, 46% of the public viewed Labour as “extreme” compared to 22% as “moderate.” Immediately upon Keir Starmer becoming Labour leader in April 2020, this gap narrowed, and has since shown a consistent and healthy lead that suggests the Party has successfully shed its Corbynite reputation. Sir John explained, though, that stark divides remain inside Labour, particularly over the conflict in Gaza. 
  1. Air of credibility and competence: Sir John explained that Labour’s poll lead can be traced back to two events: Partygate and the Liz Truss mini-budget. However, the gap is modest by historic standards; 41% of voters in January 2024 said they believe Labour is ready to form the next Government, similar to those who thought the same of Gordon Brown in 2010. Tony Blair’s equivalent number in 1997 was 55%. More encouragingly for Labour, in March 2024 they enjoy a narrow 6% lead over the Conservatives as the best party at manging the economy. However, by far the most popular answer to this question is “don’t know,” pointing to a potential policy problem post-election.
  1. Bridge the Brexit divide: The last general election exposed Labour’s weakness on Europe, but Sir John outlined how the next will be fought on vastly different grounds. The decline in support for the Conservative Party has pushed those who would vote to stay out the EU, if another referendum were held, both to Labour and Reform UK. Since the last election, Labour’s proportion of voters who would stay out has increased by 14% while Reform UK’s has increased by 18%, both driven by a steep decline in the Conservatives’ support. This is welcome news for Keir Starmer, as it suggests the coalition that delivered the landslide majority for the Conservatives in 2019 has fractured, with the added bonus that Reform UK could present more of a problem for Sunak than him. 
  1. Reconnect with Labour’s traditional working class base: A long time trend amongst Labour’s vote is a weakening in support in its once-core working class base. The polling suggests that Labour’s objective to reconnect has been less successful. The Party’s support is roughly even between ‘AB’ voters, white collar professionals, and ‘DE’ voters, those in manual occupations. In 1997, twice the proportion of DE voters supported Labour than AB. While the decline in class-based voting continues, Sir John outlined the strong relationship between age and party support. Currently, Labour’s support among 18-24 year olds is 60%, decreasing at each age bracket to 34% for those aged 65 years and older. Given low turnout for young voters, this will not help Labour’s electoral chances.
  1. Improve the geography of Labour’s support: Labour would require a 14 point lead over the Conservatives to win a majority of one seat in the Commons. This underscores the necessity to broaden Labour’s nationwide support. The ‘Red Wall’ battleground that characterised the 2019 election would be the first to turn Labour, according to Sir John, owing to razor-thin majorities. The Liberal Democrats are focusing heavily on around 30 target seats predominantly held by the Conservatives which would also assist Labour by lowering the Conservative vote where it can’t. The fall in support for the SNP has seen Labour now within a few points of the nationalists. This would deliver Labour a total of 24 Scottish seats, lowering the risk of a Hung Parliament.

A Conservative victory in the next general election would “defy psephological history” according to Sir John. The shift required in the polls would be several times greater than any previous swing. However, the evidence suggests that Labour has only made modest progress on its goals, and the likelihood of a significant victory remains contingent on the Conservative’s misfortunes. For Labour, this means the party could expect a remarkably-short honeymoon period, even if they’re ultimately successful in winning a majority.

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