This week’s local elections take place against the backdrop of leadership plots and follow perhaps the most politically turbulent few months since the Brexit wars. My new research, including an 8,000-sample poll and focus groups with 2019 Conservatives in different types of seat throughout the country, shows how voters have reacted to the recent controversies and where Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and their parties now stand in relation to the voters.
Partygate: is it over yet?
Just under half of all voters (47%) including nearly one in five 2019 Tories, said they thought “breaking the rules is a very serious matter, and Boris Johnson should resign”. This included more than 3 in 10 (31%) of those who switched from Labour to the Conservatives at the 2019 election.
Three in ten, including just under half of 2019 Tories, agreed that “if lockdown rules were broken that is a serious issue, but there are more important things going on and Boris Johnson should be allowed to concentrate on them instead.” A further 15%, including 3 in 10 Conservatives from 2019, thought “these issues are trivial and far too much attention is being paid to them.”
In our focus groups, longer-standing Conservatives, including those who had never been Johnson enthusiasts, often argued that it was time to move on. First-time Tories in “red wall” seats were on the whole more critical – perhaps because they were the most surprised and disappointed. They had thought of him as a maverick but not a liar or a lawbreaker, and some believed the episode showed him to be part of an elite that looked down on them rather than – as they had felt in 2019 – on their side against the political establishment.
Living costs, the Sunaks, and other issues
Six in ten of all voters named the cost of living among the top three issues facing the country – well ahead of the second-placed issue, the NHS, named by 49%.
While some in our groups believed rising prices were an inevitable consequence of the war, covid or (sometimes) Brexit – and were not surprised the government had been unable to do more to help given the state of the post-pandemic public finances – there was a widespread view that more action was needed. Many had noticed more stringent energy prices caps in other countries including France, or called for a windfall tax on energy firms that must surely be enjoying a boom in profits.
Most had hardly registered the mini-Budget and those who had were unimpressed, saying any help was vastly outweighed by tax and price increases. Stories about the Sunak family’s wealth and his wife’s tax status – as well as the Chancellor’s apparent unfamiliarity with contactless debit cards – reinforced an impression of a government out of touch with normal people’s lives.
Who would do a better job on…
When it came to various policy issues, our poll found the Conservatives ahead only on protecting Britain’s national security (by a 6-point margin).
On other issues – including crime, the economy and immigration – a Labour government led by Keir Starmer was thought more likely to do a good job by between 2 points (Britain’s standing in the world) and 30 points (improving living standards for most people).
Asked who would perform better in various prime ministerial roles, Johnson was thought more likely to do a good job when it came to “making the right decisions even when they are unpopular” (though only by 32% to 30%), and the two were tied on “making things happen and getting things done” (with only 3 in 10 thinking this applied to either of them).
Otherwise, Starmer led by 6 points on representing Britain internationally, by 8 points on having a clear idea what he wants to achieve and having the right judgment in a crisis, by 9 points on speaking for the country, by 13 points on being able to lead a team, by 20 points on formulating effective policies to improve people’s lives, by 21 points on communicating effectively, by 31 points on understanding ordinary people, and by 8 points on “doing the job of Prime Minister overall”. In each case, however, around 4 in 10 respondents answered “don’t know”.
The Boris question
Asked about their view of Johnson, 16% of our poll participants, including 39% of 2019 Conservative voters, agreed with the statement “I thought he was a rogue and a chancer, but I voted for him anyway.”
Among those leaning towards the Tories at the next election, 4 in 10 said “I think he’s a rogue and a chancer but that won’t stop me voting for him.”
Several in our groups – again, largely first-time Tories from 2019 – said their opinion of Johnson had deteriorated sharply in recent months. As well as the lockdown party controversy, they felt that the government had delivered little apart from Brexit, that it seemed to have no discernible plan for the future, and that it seemed out of touch with their lives and concerns: “It comes across as though he’s winging it,” as one put it.
But even some critics of the government defended him, praising his handling of Brexit, covid, the vaccination programme, and his sheer resilience: “I don’t see anyone stronger in terms of personality and leadership… He still gets out there and makes his point stronger than anyone else.”
What is a woman?
We showed our poll participants two statements from Starmer and Johnson on the subject of trans rights and how to define a woman. The statements were shown without attribution to help avoid partisan responses. We asked people how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each one.
Overall, there was more and stronger agreement with Johnson’s statement that those wanting to make a transition should be treated with generosity and respect but “the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important” than with Starmer’s view that a woman is a female adult “and in addition to that, trans women are women.” 62% agreed with Johnson’s statement and 41% with Starmer’s.
While 2019 Tories were much more likely to agree with Johnson’s statement than Starmer’s (by 75% to 27%), Labour voters were only slightly more likely to agree with Starmer’s than Johnson’s (by 59% to 54%). Among 2019 Con-Lab switchers, 72% agreed with Johnson’s statement and 32% with Starmer’s.
Many in our focus groups had heard about Starmer being reluctant to give clear answers when questioned on the subject. While some gave him credit for trying to be inclusive and avoid causing offence, more felt he was simply afraid to give a more definitive answer for fear of upsetting radicals in his own party – which told them more about how he might behave as prime minister than it did about his views on the issues itself.
Battle of the brands
Asked whether a selection of positive attributes applied to each of the two main parties, voters considered only one – “willing to take tough decisions for the long term” – to apply more to the Conservatives than to Labour (though only 26% of voters, and 55% of 2019 Tories) said they thought it was true of the party. By very narrow margins Labour were more likely to be “clear about what they stand for”, “competent and capable” and “united”, to have “the right priorities for the country” and to be trusted to “do what they say” – though with only 1 in 5 or less saying these were true of the party in each case.
Labour leads were wider when it came to being “on the side of people like me” (with 24% saying it was true of Labour, and just 7% of the Tories) and wanting “to help ordinary people get on in life” (41% saying it applied to Labour, 10% to the Conservatives).
Poll respondents were shown a wide selection of words and images and asked to choose three of each that they most associated with Labour and the Conservatives.
Among voters as a whole, the words and phrases most often associated with the Conservative Party were “untrustworthy”, “for themselves”, “out of touch” and “for the few”. The most frequently chosen images were a prosperous-looking man in a suit, a rich family in front of a big house, an expensive car and Big Ben.
Labour’s “brand board” as constructed by voters as a whole was more positive, including the words “for the many” and pictures of a doctor and a busy working woman. However, it also prominently features a man on a sofa drinking beer, often chosen in the past to suggest Labour as a party for people who prefer not to work. The idea of Labour as a Division Two football club, suggesting a slightly second-rate operation, also featured widely, along with the words “weak”, “confused” and “jumping on the bandwagon”.
Among those who voted Conservative in 2019 having not done so at the previous election, the most popular selections were similar to those of the electorate in general – but with the more positive addition of “patriotic” and “optimistic”.
The same group had a more negative view of Labour, adding the word “woke” and an image representing fear – but also a picture of a miner, usually chosen to represent the party’s traditional alliance with working class voters.
While many in our groups thought the Conservative Party seemed different compared to the Cameron and May eras, especially in being more diverse. However, some felt that attempts to show it was on the side of working-class people had been shown to be superficial: “They’re trying to look different and for the people by having someone like Boris as leader, but it’s just a cover;” “They managed to push through Brexit, but the issue is where are we now and what’s the long-term plan going forward?”
Aside from Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak there were positive mentions in our focus groups for Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid, and strong views of Priti Patel, both positive and negative.
There was very little enthusiasm for Labour in our focus groups, even among those who had been highly critical of Johnson and the Conservatives. There were concerns that Labour could not be trusted with the public finances, and Starmer himself was widely thought to be criticising the government without offering any constructive alternatives. “There’s no kind of solution coming out of his mouth. It’s just ‘we wouldn’t have done that, this shouldn’t have happened’. Nothing to make me think ‘this guy’s got a plan, he knows where he’s going’.”
The next election
We asked our poll participants how likely they thought they were to vote for each party on a scale from zero to 100. Labour had a slightly higher mean likelihood score among voters as a whole (30) than the Conservatives (26).
This was largely because 2019 Labour voters gave a higher mean likelihood of repeating their vote (65) than 2019 Tories (60). Those who switched from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019 had a mean likelihood of voting Tory again at 42/100 – lower than among Conservative leaners as a whole, but higher than their likelihood of voting Labour next time (23/100).
There was little difference in mean likelihood to vote Tory again between 2019 Conservative Remainers (58/100) and Conservative Leavers (62/100).