If you are looking at voting intention or best Prime Minister figures to judge how well an opposition leader is doing, the first thing to note is that they are relative. It’s not just about how well the opposition are doing, it’s about how well the government are doing. Indeed, it’s probably mostly how well the government are doing – I am a great believer in the old truism that oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them. A really good opposition leader can pick holes in a government and force them into political errors, but primarily it’s a job of waiting for them to make a mistake, and making sure that when they do, you look like a plausible enough alternative for the public to place their trust in you.

Many of Starmer’s internal Labour party critics start with the absolute assumption that the Government are incredibly unpopular and that Labour should therefore be ahead of them. The reality is the Government’s figures really aren’t that bad and, on corona vaccination – the issue that currently dominates the agenda – are strikingly good. Looking at the Ipsos MORI polling this week, 38% think the government are handling corona well, 46% badly (negative, but not overwhelmingly so). 86% think they are doing well at securing vaccine supplies, 78% that they are doing well in rolling it out. For better or for worse, Boris Johnson has also delivered on his main election promise – getting Brexit done – and his own approval ratings appear to have bottomed out at the end of last year and have improved slightly since then.

As such, we’ve seen the Conservative party creep back ahead in the polls over recent months. At the tail end of last year the polls were broadly neck-and-neck. The Tories now clearly have a small lead again. Opinium and YouGov’s polls this week show a 5 point Tory lead, Survation a 6 point lead, Ipsos MORI earlier this month a 4 point lead. This is likely more a reflection of the Conservative Government’s recovering fortunes than anything Labour have or haven’t done. If we want to get a decent measure of public attitudes towards Keir Starmer, we need to look at figures asking directly about Starmer himself, rather than his relative position to the Government.

If we do that, then on the whole, Starmer’s ratings are at least acceptable. During the early part of his leadership there were very solid indeed, but over the last few months they have declined. His approval ratings are fairly neutral (Opinium’s last poll had 32% approving, 30% disapproving; Ipsos MORI has 40% satisfied, 35% dissatisfied; YouGov 39% good job, 37% bad job). These are significantly better than Boris Johnson’s current ratings, and better than his predecessors Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

Looking at polling on perceptions of Starmer, YouGov gives him positive ratings on being strong, likeable, decisive and – especially – competence (42% see him as competent, 21% incompetent). Ipsos MORI finds strongly positive ratings for him on being decisive, and moderately positive figures on leading opinion and demonstrating a clear vision.

MORI also ask a regular question on if the opposition leader looks ready to be Prime Minister. 33% of people think Starmer does, 37% think he does not. Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband got figures ranging between 17%-31% thinking they looked ready to be Prime Minister, but consistently got in excess of 60% saying they did not. The positive figures may not be that different here, but Starmer’s negatives are far, far less than his predecessors. YouGov have a similar question, and found 33% think Starmer looks like a Prime Minister in waiting.

It is clear from the polling that Keir Starmer is seen by the general public as much more of a competent, plausible Prime Ministerial figure than his two predecessors. Whether that is enough is a different matter. I’ve frequently compared Starmer’s figures in this article to Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. By that yardstick they’re not bad at all. But compare them to Tony Blair, or even to David Cameron, the last two leaders of the opposition to actually go on and become Prime Minister, and they look less positive.

It’s also worth underlining that the direction of movement for Starmer is currently negative. Lots of leaders have positive ratings to begin with (think of how positively rated Theresa May was to begin with, for example). At the moment it looks as if the way that Keir Starmer presents himself has chimed enough with the public for them to give him a serious hearing and to remain open-minded on whether he’d make a good Prime Minister. It looks as if Starmer has managed to win the opportunity to be heard, but having that opportunity doesn’t mean he won’t fluff it.

Obviously Keir Starmer is not yet in a position to win a general election. We won’t know until after the boundary review exactly what sort of lead the Labour party would need to win an election, but to get an overall majority on a uniform swing then without some degree of political realignment they’d need a very substantial lead indeed and at this point, Starmer has no lead at all. I suppose for those within the Labour party, it depends exactly how much one can reasonably expect from leader who inherits a party that has just suffered one of its worst ever general elections, its fourth in row, and has spent the last five years busy in internecine warfare.


Yesterday Channel 4 news and JLPartners released an interesting poll of so-called “red wall” seats. A lot of things get written about “Red Wall seats” that don’t necessarily have much thought behind them. It is the Essex man or Worcester woman of the 2019 election, an easy buzzword that is too often a substitute for proper understanding. They are important, but you need to look careful at the nuances.

Let us start by going back to where the term originated, with James Kanagasooriam. It wasn’t just a generic word for northern marginals or Tory targets – James coined it when talking about as seats that demographically should have been Conservative, but which consistently voted Labour. James actually identified several groups of these seats – some in Wales, some in County Durham, and a big swathe of them across urban Lancashire and Yorkshire that looked like a red wall. Hence the name.

The whole point of James’ argument was that there were seats that in terms of their make up (class, economy, education, age structure and so on) you would expect to vote Conservative, but that they actually voted Labour because of a cultural, historical and social hostility towards the Tories. These weren’t seats full of horny-handed sons of toil, they were seats that were or had become more affluent but yet not become Tory. Sefton, for example, is largely affluent suburbia, with some of the highest home-ownership rates in the country. Yet it votes Labour, because it’s Liverpool’s suburbs, and people in Liverpool are not inclined to go about voting Conservative.

One can debate the reasons for this dislike, but the most obvious explanations are historical: the identity as former mining communities, the legacy and memory of Thatcherism and the dismantling of industry in the North in the 1980s. The point was, this was an obstacle to the Tories – how to appeal to these people who “should” demographically be their target audience, but for whatever reason were not interested.

Skipping ahead, we know that the Conservatives did manage to do this in many areas in 2017 and 2019. In fact in many of these areas there has been an incredible sea-change in voting behavior. Across the two elections the Conservatives have made gains there that would have looked unbelievable ten years ago. In 2015, the Conservatives won the national share of the vote by 7%. In 2019 they won by 12%, that is, a 2.5% swing across those two elections. Compare that to the Lab=>Con swing in some of the “red wall” seats. Sedgefield experienced a 14% swing across the two elections, Blyth Valley 13%, Bolsover 19%, Leigh 18%.

While there are some areas that did not follow this tide (Merseyside in particular is still extremely unforgiving territory for the Conservative party), among other areas in Lancashire, Country Durham, and Derbyshire mining areas the “red wall” decisively crumbled.

There are different explanations one can come up with for what happened. Part of it was probably the disruptive effect Brexit had upon traditional party ties, part of it perhaps a general change to the way the Conservative party has presented itself and its message. Much will simply be to the passage of time – those old mining identities can only sustain for so long once the mines have closed, the miners have passed on, the old sites regenerated and replaced by new build housing estates.

However, the Tory advances of 2017 and 2019 were not just in James’s red wall seats. Here is where it gets complicated, and why one should be cautious about throwing all those 2019 gains in together. The Conservatives gained other seats as well, some of which don’t match this description at all. Lewis Baston has written about this well previously. Some of them were in perennial marginals – places like Darlington, Stockton South, Keighley or Lincoln that have been competitive for decades and just happen to be in the North or the Midlands. If you are looking at opinion in the “red wall seats”, you have to be careful how you define it, and what you are actually looking at.

All that brings me round to the actual JLpartners/Channel 4 polling. This polled 500 people in the seats that the Conservatives won from Labour in the North & Midlands in 2019. The write up and full tables are here (do go and have a read, as there is lots of detail I have not explored below).

Overall the poll shows Labour at 47%, the Conservatives at 41%. In comparison, in the same seats the vote share in 2019 was Conservative 48%, Labour 39%. That translates into a swing of 7.5% from Conservative to Labour. In comparison the national polls conducted over the same period showed on average a Conservative lead of 1 point, a swing of 5.5% from Conservative to Labour.

On the face of it, that suggests the Conservatives are doing marginally worse in these seats than in the country as a whole. If that was to happen at an election it would be unusual – parties actually tend to do a bit better than average in seats they gained at the previous election because they have gained the incumbency advantage (the MP’s “personal vote”), and their opponents have lost it, so this would be a particularly poor performance. However, I should add the caveat that it’s just one poll of 500 people, so there is a margin of error of 4% on there. We should not put too much confidence on whether the Conservatives are doing a couple of percentage points better or worse in an area based on a single poll.

More interesting of course would be to be able to look under the bonnet at the different types of seat within those we’ve lumped together as “red wall” seats. Are there different patterns at work in those traditional marginal seats to those former mining and industrial seats that have been part of the bigger red-wall sea-change. There is no particular reason to think that seats like Lincoln or Blackpool South or Gedling would behave any differently to marginal seats elsewhere – but for seats like Sedgefield, Bassetlaw or Bolsover there’s a question of whether the political re-alignment we’ve seen over the last few elections has come to a halt or is still ongoing.

That’s not to say the JLPartners/Channel 4 poll isn’t good stuff – it is – it’s more than it’s only a starting point.

The question people tend to ask on the back of polls like this is whether the Tories need to worry unduly about keeping these seats in their column, and whether Labour can win them back. In that context, it is probably too simplistic to look at them as a single lump. In one sense, obviously these seats will be part of the battleground – but that’s just a truism. These are marginal seats, elections will be always be won and lost in the marginal seats. The more important question is whether these marginal seats are the ones that are most likely to change at the next election, or whether by looking at the fashionable “red wall” seats we miss looking at potentially more vulnerable seats elsewhere?

It may be that the political re-alignment in the true “red wall” seats is so seismic that they actually become safer Tory seats than some of the more traditional marginals. It may be that the more vulnerable Tory seats next time round are actually some more affluent seats with high proportions of graduates. The pattern of key marginals next time round could be those that are similar to North West Bristol or Canterbury, rather than winning back old mining seats.

Northern Tory gains last time weren’t monolithic – it isn’t one single “red wall” – they mix up some traditional marginals, as well as some sea that have seen truly transformational change. We shouldn’t assume they’ll behave as one block, or in the same way in the future either. Equally, we shouldn’t necessarily assume that all the interesting changes at the next election will happen in the same place as the last one. There are risks and opportunities elsewhere too.


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There have been three GB opinion polls published over the last few days –

YouGov/Times (4th/5th Nov) – CON 35%(-3), LAB 40%(+2), LDEM 7%(+1) (tabs)
Opinium/Observer (5th/6th Nov) – CON 38%(nc), LAB 42%(+2), LDEM 7%(+1) (tabs)
Survation (5th/6th Nov) – CON 39%(-2), LAB 37%(nc), LDEM 9%(+2) (tabs)

YouGov and Opinium both have Labour clearly ahead (in Opinium’s case that’s confirming the lead in their previous poll; for YouGov it’s the first Labour lead since the election. They come after a ComRes poll last week showing the parties equal and an Ipsos MORI poll that also had a five point lead. While there will always be some volatility in individual polls, looking at the average across all of the polling companies it now looks as if Labour have moved into a small lead.

Back in the summer the Conservatives had a consistent lead averaging around five or six points – since then Labour have been chipping away at it. The most obvious explanation is the generally negative perception of the government’s handling of Corona and Boris Johnson’s leadership, married to the generally positive public attitude towards Keir Starmer.

Despite the timing I would be cautious about reading too much into the impact of Labour’s internal battle and the expulsion of Jeremy Corbyn – while the polling certainly suggested that it had boosted perceptions of Keir Starmer, that increase was largely among Tory voters. In reality, most of the daily soap opera of politics doesn’t have a noticeable impact on voting intentions (especially if it is so rapidly pushed off the front pages by events across the Atlantic) – my guess is that this is more just the continuation of a trend that has been apparent for months, which happened to reach the crossover point in this past fortnight.

Does it matter? In a predictive sense of course not – there are years until MPs have to face the electorate. In terms of it’s impact on politics? Of course – it strengthens Keir Starmer’s hand in internal party fights if he is the man who put Labour back ahead. Equally, it weakens Boris Johnson if he is no longer seen as a popular election winner, something that was once his main selling point to the Tory party.


I’ve written over the YouGov website about the latest YouGov polling on how the government are handling the corona outbreak here.

Polls across the board show that the public have a generally negative attitude towards how the government are handling the outbreak. The attempt here is to look under the bonnet a bit about why, and which parts. In that sense people seem to rate the government’s handling of the coronavirus in economic terms seems to be a little better than perceptions of how they are combating the virus itself. However, the very lowest results are on perceptions of the level of organisation – just 20% think they appear to be in charge of the situation, only 17% think they have a clear plan.

Full article is here.


Two voting intention polls in the Sunday papers. Deltapoll in the Mail on Sunday had CON 42%, LAB 38%, LDEM 6% (report here). Opinium in the Observer has CON 39%, LAB 42%, LDEM 5% (report here).

I expect rather more attention will be given to the poll from Opinium as the Labour lead is the first we’ve seen since July 2019. We’ve had a couple of polls showing the main parties neck-and-neck in recent weeks (there was another one yesterday from Redfield & Wilton, showing them both at 40%). Looking across the various polls it is clear that the two main parties were heading towards roughly equal levels of support and, therefore, normal margin of error was going to spit out a Labour lead soon enough.

The question is what impact this starts to have upon the political environment – assuming the pattern continues – voting intention polls this far out have little predictive value (4 years to go!), but do have an influence on how the parties are perceived to be doing by their own supporters, their own MPs and the media. It helps Keir Starmer to be seen as a winner, who has put the Labour party back into the lead. It risks doing the opposite for Boris Johnson, especially given one of his selling points to the Tory party was his popularity with the public.