1945, 2022: respected PM, shame about his party

Something old, something new. Over the decades, pollsters have tracked the fortunes of parties and their leaders. They tend to rise and fall broadly together—but not precisely. In the late 1990s, Labour was popular, but Tony Blair more so; in recent times, when Labour’s ratings were bad, Jeremy Corbyn’s were worse.

What’s new is the gulf between these two measures. In half a century of poll-watching, I have never seen a contrast between leader and party as sharp as that today between Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives. Every poll shows Labour on track for a big election victory, but three polls report that Rishi Sunak has narrowly overtaken Keir Starmer when people are asked who would make the best prime minister.

To unpack what is happening, we need to trace the polling helter-skelter of recent weeks. The table below is a sort of poll-of-polls, comparing party support from before Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget with the days immediately before Liz Truss resigned—and in the past week, since Rishi Sunak became prime minister. 

The table shows the average of the figures from the same seven polling companies at each stage. This helps to iron out the sampling fluctuations to which all individual polls are prone*. The figures from each polling company are shown at the end of this blog.

For the six months before the mini-budget, Labour’s lead fluctuated within a narrow range of 5-10 per cent. Kwarteng’s measures changed all that. Labour’s lead jumped to 33 per cent over the following four weeks. As I have noted before, the swing was directly from Conservative to Labour—other parties such as the Liberal Democrats made no gains.

The latest polls, conducted since Sunak became prime minister, show that Labour has held most of its gains. The Tories have clawed back some ground, taking modest numbers of votes from the Lib Dems and other parties, as well as from Labour. But Keir Starmer remains on course to become prime minister with a big—and, according to some pollsters, overwhelming—majority.

Yet that is nothing like the conclusion we would draw if we were to look at Sunak’s ratings alone. As well as edging ahead of Starmer when voters are asked who would make the best prime minister, a BMG survey last week found that he leads Starmer by 11 points on managing the economy (41-30 per cent) and nine points on taxation (39-30 per cent) although Starmer leads by one point on the cost of living (36-35 per cent).

So why do the Tories seem to be heading for a heavy defeat at the next election? BMG’s poll provides some clues. When the same voters are asked which party, rather than which leader, they prefer to handle these issues, Labour moves back into the lead by 13 points on the economy (36-23 per cent) and taxation (35-22 per cent), and by 17 points on the cost of living (38-21 per cent). It seems that Sunak has not managed sufficiently to convert approval for him personally into votes for his party. 

Opinium’s latest survey throws light on what is going on. It asked a series of questions to test the general reputations of Sunak, Starmer and their parties. Sunak scores well on competence, which is arguably the most important component of a politician’s reputation, and on being “able to get things done”. On both things, he scores vastly better than Liz Truss, and a little better than Starmer.

However, the data reveal two big drawbacks. The first is that by majorities of more than two-to-one, voters think Sunak is out of touch “with ordinary people”, and that he does NOT have “similar views to my own”. On both of these attributes, he polls far worse than Starmer. Sunak is seen as slightly more likeable than Starmer, but somewhat less trustworthy.  

Worse, his party scores badly across the board. Only 22 per cent say it is competent; 55 per cent disagree: a net score of minus 33. By the same margin, the public think its views are different from theirs. As for being in touch with ordinary people, the party has a net score of minus 49, which should terrify any Tory canvasser going to knock on voters’ doors. Those are just three of the reputational issues that Opinium tested; the party scores extremely badly on the other seven, too.

In contrast, Labour does better on all 10 matters of judgement. Its net score on competence is plus four, being in touch, plus 17. A simplified but revealing way to look at how voters view the parties is to combine the ten judgement issues and calculate the average. For Labour it is 40 per cent positive, 30 per cent negative; for the Tories: 21 per cent positive, 55 per cent negative.

The only remotely equivalent historic parallel comes from a time when polling was in its infancy and provided nothing like the detail we have today. In May 1945, Gallup found that 83 per cent approved of Winston Churchill as prime minister; just 14 per cent disapproved. Yet Labour held a 12-point lead over the Conservatives; two months later Labour did indeed win by a landslide.

Plainly we should not push the parallels too far. We can all list the many ways in which 2022 is nothing like 1945. But the point remains that in 1945, the Conservative party’s reputation was shot to pieces. It was regarded as out of touch will people’s views and lives and the changes they sought after the war. Clement Attlee, Labour’s leader and deputy prime minister since 1940, had overseen the plans bubbling up within Whitehall for the reforms that voters wanted. Labour represented the future, while the Tories represented the past. Not even the overwhelming popularity of the man who had led the nation to victory could overcome that central fact.

Last week Sunak promised to correct the “mistakes” that Truss made. That is very far from enough. The departure of a failed leader is just the start of the process. The prime minister needs to confront the profound contempt in which voters hold his whole party. If he can do that, the next election might yet be competitive. If he can’t, it won’t be. 

* Technical note. Statistical theory tells us that the random sampling error for the support for individual parties is 2-3 per cent for normal polls. The sampling error for the GAP between the two main parties is larger than that, and the figure for the CHANGE in party lead is greater still—around 6-7 per cent. By combining the figures from seven polling companies, we can minimise the risk of random error, and therefore view the ups and downs of each party with some confidence. The risk of systematic errors remains; and some of the variations between different companies flow from their different ways of measuring voting intention. l discussed the ways methods differ, most notably between Opinium and YouGov, in a blog four weeks ago.)