Why isn’t Starmer 20pts ahead?

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“Twenty points ahead”

It’s a phrase that has proven impossible to avoid if you’re on the left and interested in opinion polls. If you browse the replies to virtually any tweet by Britain Elects, ElectionMapsUK or indeed my own Twitter account, then you’ll find dozens of people asking why Keir Starmer isn’t twenty percentage points ahead of the Conservatives in the polls. It has become, arguably, one of the most widely-known memes associated with the Labour Leader.

And like most memes, it’s not meant seriously. 

In this article, I’ll take a brief look at the origins of the meme. But then I’ll attempt to answer the question: why, when the government has a net approval rating of -7, are the Tories still ahead in the polls? And why isn’t Labour 20pts ahead?

Where the meme came from

Virtually everyone who mentions the phrase does not intend “20 points ahead” to be a realistic standard. Instead, the phrase is a ironic reference to the centrist celebrities, commentators, activists and politicians who argued in 2017-19 that Labour under Corbyn should be 20 points ahead in the polls – often when Labour was ahead in the polls.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, argued in November 2017 that Labour “should be 15, 20 points ahead”; former Chancellor George Osborne argued a month later that Labour would be 20pts ahead of the Tories if Corbyn were not the Leader; a month after that, actor Eddie Marsan said that Labour “should be 20 points ahead in the polls”; later that same year, philosopher AC Grayling tweeted that “You’d think Labour would be 20 points ahead”; and this continued on for literally years.

After Keir Starmer was elected Leader of the Labour Party in April 2020, many left-wing activists on Twitter began to use the phrase ironically to criticise Starmer and his supporters. And surprisingly (at least to me) the phrase has only increased in usage since then.

So why isn’t Labour 20pts ahead?

Labour hasn’t been 20pts ahead in a monthly average of polls for nearly 20 years, and it hasn’t been 20pts ahead in opposition for 24 years (the last time was in March 1997). There have been many double-digit leads for Labour, but polling 20pts ahead of the Conservative Party is difficult to do. The main reason for why it’s so hard, especially now, is that there are a substantial number of people who will never stop supporting the Conservatives.

Aside from a brief collapse for both major parties between May and August 2019, the Conservatives have not fallen below 28% in a monthly average of polls since November 2001. As a result, Labour needs to regularly average 48%+ in polls in order to be 20pts ahead of the Tories; they have not achieved this in opposition since March 1997. The graph below compares the latest poll average (February 2021) to the last time Labour was 20pts ahead in opposition:

Comparison of poll averages in March 1997 and February 2021

However, Labour has been 20pts ahead in the past. So what’s different about now?

Leadership approval ratings

One of the main differences is the relative popularity of the party leaders (Johnson and Starmer).

In March 1997 (the last time that Labour was 20pts ahead in opposition), Tony Blair’s approval rating was 60%. However, just 33% of voters approved of then-Tory Leader John Major. This represented a 27pt advantage for Blair.

However, this month (February 2021), there is no such advantage for Starmer. Instead, the percentage who approve of Starmer is 34%, whilst the percentage who approve of Boris Johnson is 41% – a 7pt advantage for Johnson. The graph below compares these two months.

Comparison of approval averages in March 1997 and February 2021

Unlike in 1997 (when Blair’s approval rating was massively higher than Major’s), the percentage of voters who approve of Starmer is 7pts lower than the percentage that approve of Johnson. This may go so some way towards explaining why Labour remains 5pt behind, on average, in polls (as opposed to the 24pt lead it enjoyed in March 1997).

Best Prime Minister preferences

In addition to this, despite more voters approving of Starmer than disapproving (34% approve, 33% disapprove), Starmer polls far behind Johnson when voters are asked who would make the best Prime Minister. In February, Johnson had an 8pt lead in Best PM polling (on average), and every single pollster in February showed Johnson ahead.

The graph below compares this poll average to the only poll conducted in March 1997 (conducted by Gallup), which showed Tony Blair 16pts ahead of John Major.

Comparison of Best PM polling in March 1997 and February 2021

Older voters

Another possible explanation for the Tories’ persistently high poll averages is their near-universal support from Leave voters and the over-65s. Most people assume that these groups have always been overwhelming Conservative, but as recently as 2010 (according to Ipsos MORI) Labour won 31% of the vote amongst the over-65s – a higher share of the vote than they won amongst 18-24s that year (30%). By 2019 their vote share amongst the over-65s had fallen to just 17%.

Labour’s support amongst over-65s has risen slightly since the 2019 election (Labour averaged 23% amongst over-65s in February 2021), but Labour’s support remains below what it was in 2017 (25%) and far below what it was in 1997 (41%).

Comparison of 2019 election result to February 2021 polling (over-65s)

Leave voters

Meanwhile, having won nearly three-quarters of Leave voters in the 2019 general election, the Tories have declined slightly amongst Leavers since then – but they still lead overwhelmingly amongst Leave voters, whilst Labour is polling only 4pts higher amongst Leavers than in 2019.

Comparison of 2019 election result to February 2021 polling (Leavers)

The Tories didn’t always have this overwhelming support from Leave voters. Lord Ashcroft found that the Tories won just 40% of the vote amongst Leave voters in 2015, with UKIP coming second with 25% and Labour third on 21%. Even after the referendum, Labour still won 24% of the vote amongst Leave voters in the 2017 general election. Yet in February 2021, the Tories are polling 66% with Leavers; Labour is on 19%.

Conclusion

So, in summary, I would identify four main reasons why Labour is not 20pts ahead:

  •  Johnson (41%) has a higher approval percentage in polls than Starmer (34%)
  • Voters still prefer Johnson (38%) to Starmer (30%) in Best Prime Minister polling
  • Over-65s overwhelmingly back the Tories now, which was not the case 20 years ago 
  • Leavers backed the Tories by an enormous margin in 2017 and 2019, and they still do

None of these things prevent Labour from polling slightly ahead of the Tories (Labour repeatedly did so in 2017-19) or winning the most seats in the 2024 general election. But in combination, they make it very unlikely that Labour will poll 20pts ahead of the Tories in the foreseeable future.

Some folks might ask: but Ell, why did you write an article about a joke?

Simple: because I would say that it’s important to emphasise that no Labour Leader (past, present or potential) could have achieved a 20pt lead in the past few years; not Corbyn, not Starmer, not Long-Bailey. No-one. There are just too many factors contributing to the Tories’ vote share being so high.

So let’s set our sights a little lower. If Labour is ahead by over 5pts, that’s good – we need to have a clear lead that’s outside the margin of error. That’s the minimum we should be expecting from an opposition that’s on course to win in 2024. If we’re ahead by less than that, or behind – then we’re not doing well enough.

And at the moment, we aren’t doing well enough.

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