Public have more confidence in Starmer to address key issues than Sunak
Last week, Labour released a controversial advert which alleged Rishi Sunak does not think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison. The advert contributes to an emerging contest between Labour and the Conservatives on emotive policy areas like crime. There is a tendency in political analysis to over-scrutinise the impact of specific policy areas on electoral outcomes at the expense of deeper, longer-term political shifts. That said, it is increasingly clear the next general election will have two, albeit broad, issues front and centre: the cost of living and the economy. These two issues are consistently identified as voters’ most pressing concern, and Labour have followed their divisive advert with efforts to tie the Prime Minister to the causes of Britain’s stagnant economy. In what follows, I interrogate public perceptions of the two leaders and assess the level of confidence in their ability to address key policy areas.
Labour’s lead was recorded at +17 points in our latest voting intention polling, conducted between 29th March and 2nd April, a +3 increase from 24th March. Labour has robust support from those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2019, with 44% saying they intend to vote Labour, while the same is true of just 16% of 2019 Conservative voters.
Much has been written regarding the extent to which Labour’s lead is a consequence of voters’ apathy towards the Conservative Government versus excitement about Starmer’s Labour. Labour’s attack adverts attempt to exploit this perceived apathy by associating the Prime Minister with the previous 13 years of Conservative rule; having only been an MP since 2015 and spending fewer than six months as Prime Minister, Sunak has some space to deflect responsibility for earlier Government failures. Sunak’s net likeability, however, sits at -8%, trailing Starmer at +3%. Starmer also leads Sunak by +1 point (37% to 36%) on the question of who would make the best Prime Minister. In terms of what might be driving Starmer’s lead here, we see that while Sunak is viewed as more intelligent and decisive, and less pessimistic and irrational, than Starmer, the Labour leader outperforms the Prime Minister across all other characteristics that most would view as desirable.
Although Declassified UK have today turned attention to Starmer’s travel expenses while he was senior public prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service, just 23% of respondents think he is more out of touch with ordinary people than Sunak, who 47% see as more out of touch. Over half of those aged 35-64 think Sunak is most out of touch, as do a majority in the north of England (53%) and Scotland (60%). While 36% of 2019 Conservative voters thought Starmer was more out of touch than Sunak, almost one-third (31%) of this group attributed this characteristic to the Conservative leader. Portraying Sunak as out of touch will continue to be a key message for Labour.
That Sunak is seen as out of touch and lacking in empathy could leave him exposed to claims he does not understand the difficulties many are facing due to the cost of living crisis. While Sunak holds a +1 point lead over Starmer on the general question ‘who do you trust more on the economy’, net confidence in the ability of Sunak to address issues related to the economy is -15%. This rises to +25% among 2019 Conservative voters and +59% among those intending to vote Conservative, and Sunak’s numbers on this issue are noticeably better than the Government’s, particularly among 2019 Conservative voters. However, net confidence in Starmer is -5% - a healthy score considering 61% of 2019 Conservative voters are not confident in his ability. Where Sunak outperforms Starmer is amongst those who intend to vote for their respective parties; net confidence in Starmer among those who express an intention to vote Labour is just +46% on the economy, whereas Sunak sits on +59% among those pledging their vote to the Conservatives.
Another issue consistently identified as crucial to voters is the NHS. Historically, Labour have a clear lead over the Conservatives in this area, and there is little evidence of that changing here. A majority (53%) are not confident in the ability of either Rishi Sunak or the Government to address issues related to the NHS. Net confidence in the Government is negative amongst both 2019 Labour (-53%) and Conservative (-9%) voters, and less than half (44%) of those who intend to vote Conservative are confident in the ability of the government. For Sunak, net confidence is -72% among 2019 Labour voters and even -6% among Conservative voters. Net confidence in Starmer far surpasses that of the Government and Prime Minister at +6%. While -24% amongst 2019 Conservative voters, net confidence in Starmer is +41% for 2019 Labour voters and +50% amongst those intending to vote Labour.
While Labour’s lead over the Conservatives on the NHS predates Starmer, successive Labour leaders have trailed the Conservatives on the issue of immigration. However, while a majority are not confident in the ability of either the Government (54%) or Prime Minister (54%) to address immigration, leaving net confidence in both at -32%, Starmer scores significantly better with a net confidence rating of -13%. This is somewhat unprecedented territory for Labour, but the data does not indicate a public overcome with confidence in the Labour leader’s immigration policy. Just 29% are confident in his ability, and he scores poorly with both leave (-42% net) and Conservative voters (-53% net). Caution should therefore be heeded, but it does highlight just how low confidence in Sunak is on immigration. Net confidence in the Prime Minister is -17% amongst 2019 Conservative voters and only +19% among those who intend to vote Conservative, whereas Starmer’s respective figures for Labour voters are +23% and +29%.
In an interview with ConservativeHome on Thursday, Sunak began to roll back on one of his five pledges: stopping small boats. He claimed he cannot be sure small boats will be stopped before the election. A majority share this pessimism, with 55% not confident in the Government’s ability to address the area of refugees and asylum seekers, rising to above 60% for those aged over 45. Net confidence among 2019 Conservative voters is -25% and collapses to -55% amongst Labour voters. Even for those intending to vote Conservative, net confidence is just +3%. The picture is not much better for Sunak personally. The majority (53%) are not confident in his ability, and net confidence in the Prime Minister is negative amongst both Labour (-52%) and Conservative (-16%) voters. Just 39% of those who identify with the Conservative Party express confidence in their leader to address the area. Net confidence in the Leader of the Opposition is -15%, and where this falls to -56% amongst Conservative voters, Starmer is +16% with 2019 Labour voters - far outstripping Sunak’s support from his party’s voters.
Housing is a policy area which receives far less attention than it should. Sunak’s own party forced him to abandon house building targets in December, and housing is not one of Labour’s five national missions. It is, however, an area where Starmer appears to have a clear advantage. While net confidence in the Labour leader is -2%, the Prime Minister (-31%) scores worse than the Government (-29%) on the issue. Where net confidence in the Prime Minister is negative amongst all 2019 voters and only +22% amongst those who intend to vote Conservative, Starmer is +32% with 2019 Labour voters and +43% for those intending to vote Labour. While not as nationally salient as the economy or the NHS, Labour has an opportunity to control the narrative on addressing Britain’s housing crisis.
Overall, a majority are not confident in the ability of either the government or the Prime Minister to address the areas of immigration, the NHS, or refugees and asylum seekers. There is some evidence of a decoupling between Sunak and the Government, and confidence in the former is generally higher, particularly on the economy. Nonetheless, Starmer outperforms both on every issue except for national security. We cannot tell whether this is merely due to Starmer not being in Government and offering an alternative, but the Labour leader has a significant advantage over the Prime Minister in several key policy areas. The salience of the economy and cost of living crisis with voters cannot be overstated; how well both parties control the narrative on the causes of, and solutions to, Britain’s economic perils will be fundamental in determining the outcome of the next election.
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Survation conducted an online poll of 1,009 adults aged 18+ in the UK. Fieldwork was conducted between 29th March and 2nd April 2023. Tables are available here.
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