Northern Irish devolved elections: a summary

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In the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election, parties that support maintaining the Union between Northern Ireland and the UK won less than 50% of the seats for the first time ever. Recent polls now suggest that the nationalist Sinn Féin party will win the most seats in the next Assembly election, due to be held in 2022. This would not change the constitutional status of the region, but it is an astonishing shift given the area’s history: in 1969, unionist parties won 73% of the vote and 79% of the seats in the region’s devolved legislature.

To appreciate just how remarkable these shifts are, it is worth looking back at previous elections in Northern Ireland.

Historical context

As some of you may know, the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in the late 1990s after several failed attempts (in 1973, 1975 and 1982). What fewer may know is that Northern Ireland had its own independent legislature – the Parliament of Northern Ireland – prior to its abolition in 1973.

Established by the UK Parliament just before the partition of Ireland, the Parliament of Northern Ireland comprised a directly-elected House of Commons and an indirectly elected Senate, and had almost total legislative power over the province (excluding foreign policy, some taxes and some UK-wide services).

From the first election in 1921 until the Parliament’s abolition in 1973, the conservative Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) held an uninterrupted landslide majority in both Houses of Parliament, winning over 60% of Commons seats in every single election. Originally elected by the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, it was elected by first-past-the-post (FPTP) from 1929 onward.

Major political parties

Despite the Liberal and Conservative parties competing in Ireland before the 1920s, following the partition of Ireland the UK parties ceased to compete in Northern Ireland. Parties specific to the region emerged, largely characterised by their position on Irish unification. The major political parties in Northern Ireland varied – from the 1920s until the 1960s only three major parties consistently won multiple seats, but following the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament two of these parties declined and several new parties emerged.


  • Ulster Unionists (UUP): centre-right unionists aligned with the UK Tories.
  • Nationalists: remnants of the old Irish Parliamentary Party in Northern Ireland, who supported the unification of Ireland. The Nationalists initially boycotted the Parliament; its MPs took their seats periodically after 1925.
  • Northern Ireland Labour: a centre-left party (not linked to the UK or Irish Labour parties) that supported the union but focused on labour issues.


  • Ulster Unionists (UUP): centre-right unionists.
  • Social Democratic and Labour (SDLP): centre-left nationalists.
  • Democratic Unionists (DUP): right-wing unionists.
  • Alliance: centrist party that takes a neutral position on the union.
  • Sinn Féin: left-wing nationalists.
  • Vanguard Progressive Unionist (until 1978): right-wing unionists.

In addition to these major parties, independent unionist candidates and other small parties have frequently been elected in small numbers.

Analysing results

Historical elections in Northern Ireland are more difficult to analyse than one might expect. The reason for this is that, due to the UUP’s overwhelming support in Northern Ireland, elections to the Northern Ireland House of Commons were not widely contested. In many seats (sometimes over 50% of seats!) only one candidate was nominated, and was elected without any votes being cast.

These sorts of unopposed elections used to be common in mainland Britain, as explained in my previous article. But in Northern Ireland, unopposed elections continued to be common – even, arguably, the norm – all the way up until the early 1970s.

As a result, the popular vote in these elections does not reflect the actual balance of political opinion in Northern Ireland. In 1933, for instance, the UUP received just 44% of the popular vote – but 27 of the party’s 36 MPs were elected without a contest, meaning that around 200,000 votes that would have gone to the UUP were simply never cast, which (taking into account other uncontested seats) would have brought their total up to 67%. I have therefore provided vote estimates for these uncontested seats, to better illustrate the actual state of politics in Northern Ireland at the time. My methodology is explained here.

Northern Ireland House of Commons (1921-1969)

The table below lists elections to the Northern Ireland House of Commons. The first two elections were conducted under STV; all future elections used FPTP. Parties required only a simple majority of MPs in order to govern.

Note: due to the enormous number of uncontested seats, the popular vote totals from 1925 onwards are my estimates based on the average vote of successful candidates in contested seats.

Northern Ireland devolved assemblies (1973-1996)

Following the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament, the UK government sought to create various devolved Assemblies and conventions between the 1970s and 1990s. The 1973, 1975 and 1982 assemblies failed; the 1996 forum ultimately succeeded and the first election to the modern Northern Ireland Assembly was held in 1998.

The first three elections used STV, whilst the 1996 election used a proportional party list system, with 2 top-up seats allocated to the top ten parties.

Northern Ireland Assembly (1998-present)

The current Northern Ireland Assembly held its first election in 1998, and although disagreements between the parties have seen the Assembly suspended multiple times (most recently between 2017 and 2020), the institution still exists today.

To facilitate the peace process, the government is composed of (at minimum) the major unionist party and the major nationalist party – currently the DUP (unionist) and Sinn Fein (nationalist). The number of seats in the executive is allocated proportionally according to a party’s share of first preference votes.

All of these elections used STV.

Uncontested elections in the UK

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One of my many statistical hobbies is compiling and analysing UK election results from before WW2. I find it fascinating how the British party system changed so dramatically and quickly between 1906 (the last Liberal majority) and 1945 (the first Labour majority).

Yet looking at old elections in the UK can be confusing. Take, for instance, the general election of 1895. The Conservatives defeated the Liberals by a margin of just 3.7pts in the popular vote, yet won a landslide majority of 152 seats. Several years later, in 1910, the Tories won by 3.3pts… and didn’t even win the most seats. How?

A big part of the reason for this is that, prior to 1918, a significant number of seats in UK elections were not contested. In other words, only one person was nominated for the constituency; no election was held, and that single person won by default. This has an enormous impact on the national popular vote. In 1895, for instance, 132 of the 411 Tory MPs were elected unopposed – versus just 11 unopposed Liberal MPs. This means that the national popular vote did not take into account over 500,000 voters who would have backed the Tories in those uncontested seats.

So, to correct this, I’ve put together some estimates for these uncontested seats. There are a number of ways to calculate this, but I’ve chosen to use the following formula:

-> Calculate average vote of the party in contested seats

-> Multiply average vote by number of uncontested seats

-> Add this total to the contested total

In the case of 1895, this produces the following outcome.

As you can see, this adjustment expands the Tory popular vote lead to a far more realistic size (14pts) given the scale of their majority. It also provides us with a far more realistic Irish Nationalist vote (5%), as the vast majority of their MPs were elected unopposed.

The tables below show all elections from 1885-2019 with the above adjustment made for uncontested seats. Note that I categorise the National Liberals and Ulster Unionists as separate parties from the Conservatives, as they were distinct organisations even if they took the Tory whip in Westminster – just as the SDLP today is a separate party that happens to take the Labour whip in Westminster.

Labour isn’t surging in the South

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In the aftermath of Labour’s 2021 local election wipe-out, in which Keir Starmer recorded the worst result for a new opposition leader in over 50 years, lots of narratives have emerged that attempt to downplay or put a positive spin on the disastrous results.

One of the most popular narratives is that, even though it inarguably went backwards in the North of England, Labour is moving forwards in the South and winning in ‘Blue Wall’ areas (‘Blue Wall’ being as undefined and vague a term as ‘Red Wall’, if not vaguer). This was driven by the over-the-top attention given to a handful of Labour gains in council wards in areas like Chipping Norton.

But when you look at all the local election results in May, Labour performed worse in the South than it did in the North – and even those areas where it did well (such as the two Mayoral elections) aren’t as impressive as they first appear.

Beyond Chipping Norton

One of the most widely retweeted election results in May was the result in the Oxfordshire ward of Chipping Norton, where Labour narrowly gain a long-time Conservative seat. Pro-Starmer and centrist commentators hailed this as the prelude to the collapse of the ‘Blue Wall’, a thesis which was given weight by the Conservatives’ astonishing defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

Yet I would argue that the excitement generated by the Chipping Norton result is misplaced. It tells us no more about the political landscape of Southern England than the result in Sewell ward does (where the Greens won for the first time since 2009). We can, however, learn from the overall result across Southern England.

In May 2021, 4.8 million voters cast a ballot in the South, with 2,400 councillors elected. Of these, the Conservatives won 1,333 (+15), the Lib Dems 413 (+15), Labour 365 (-88) and the Greens 98 (+55). Independent candidates, Residents’ Associations and smaller parties won the remaining 175 seats (+9).

These results may seem surprising. The popular narrative amongst many centrists is that Labour made significant gains in the South in May 2021, and that the Tories are collapsing. But as the results show, the already sizeable Tory vote held up, whilst Labour lost seats and is now in third place behind the Liberal Democrats. In other words, Labour has gone backwards in the South compared to its performance under Jeremy Corbyn.

Having said that, it’s inarguable that these gains by the Conservatives in the South were relatively small, especially compared to the 113 gains they made in the North and the 106 gains they made in the Midlands.

But Labour (-88) did not benefit from this Tory under-performance. Instead, Starmer’s party lost a higher percentage of their seats in the South than they did in the North – for instance, they lost 7% of their seats in the North West but lost 28% of their seats in the South West.

In terms of councils, Labour now has a majority on just 9 of the 73 Southern councils that were up for election in May – a net loss of three councils compared to the previous elections, whilst the Conservatives control 39 (+1). Labour gained absolutely no councils in the South in May 2021. Indeed, it barely has more than the Liberal Democrats.

Signs of hope?

The most positive results that Labour can point to in the South (outside of London) are the two Metro Mayoral elections held in the West of England and in Cambridgeshire. Labour won both, but their results in both were not necessarily as impressive as they first appear.

The West of England result was good: Labour won the most first preferences, with the Labour vote rising by 11pts compared to May 2017.

In addition to winning Bristol, the party won 32% (+17) in Bath & North East Somerset – an impressive showing for Starmer’s party, which won just 19% there in 2019 and holds no seats in the area.

Having said that, the West of England region has been trending towards Labour since the 2017 general election, as the graph below indicates.

So whilst the West of England Mayoral election was a positive result, the region has been trending towards Labour since the 2015 general election – the party lost it in 2015 by a 9pt margin, but won it by a 3pt margin in 2017. This trend was particularly clear in Bristol, where Labour won just 29% of the popular vote in the May 2017 mayoral election but went on to win 60% in the June 2017 general election (and 54% in 2019).

The same cannot be said of Cambridgeshire, however, which makes the result there even more interesting.

In the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region, Labour’s candidate (Dr Nik Johnson) won the election – but he did not win the most first preferences. Instead, the Conservative candidate outpolled Johnson by 41% (+3) to 33% (+14), with Johnson winning in the second round after getting the vast majority of second preferences from Lib Dem voters.

This doesn’t change the fact that Labour won, but it does matter for other elections: this second preference system will be abolished before the next Mayoral election, and in any event UK Parliament elections don’t use it anyway.

As a result, whilst Labour’s victory in Cambridgeshire was brilliant, the breakdown of first preference votes is not particularly encouraging for future elections. Across the six local authorities, Labour’s vote increased – often substantially – but the party only won the most first preferences within one local authority (Cambridge). The Lib Dems won in one area (South Cambridgeshire), whilst the Tories won the other four areas. This suggests that prospects for Labour gains in Parliamentary elections in the area are not promising.


So what can we learn from all this data? Well, firstly, Labour is not surging in the South. It actually went backwards in the South in May, in many areas losing worse than it did in the North and Midlands. And even the two positive results (the Mayoral elections) reflected long-term trends (in the West of England) and the effect of the Supplementary Vote system (in Cambridgeshire).

Labour is having difficulty everywhere at present – South, North, Midlands, Scotland, etc. The only nation where Labour performed well in May was in Wales, where Corbynite Mark Drakeford led Welsh Labour to win an astounding 30 of 60 seats in the Welsh Parliament. Labour should learn from Drakeford’s example, and present a clear set of social democratic policies that will improve people’s lives. That’s how we’ll win.

The Burnham Effect

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In May 2021, Labour experienced the worst council election defeat for a new opposition leader in at least 40 years. But in the regional Mayoral elections in England, the party had a relatively good night. Although it fell short in the West Midlands and lost hugely to a popular incumbent in Tees Valley, the party gained two Mayors from the Tories in Southern England, and the two incumbent Labour Mayors in Liverpool and Greater Manchester were re-elected by a huge margin.

It is these latter two elections that I want to focus on, because both Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) and Steve Rotherham (Liverpool City Region) massively outperformed the Labour Party in their regions in May, often winning in council areas that Labour lost or barely won on that same day. As Labour seeks to rebuild its support across England in the aftermath of the 2019 election, these results suggest that it should be looking to its regional Mayors for advice.

Ticket splitting

First off, a little background. In May, in part due to elections being delayed from 2020, many areas held multiple elections on the same day. In some cases, thousands of voters backed different parties in different elections. In the West Midlands, for instance, Labour lost the Mayoral election (winning 40%) but won the PCC election (winning 46%).

In some areas, voters’ partisanship was remarkably consistent. In the city of Norwich, for instance, the Conservatives won 22-23% of the vote in all three elections (PCC, County Council and City Council). Labour also performed similarly consistently (42-45%).

In other words, there is no guarantee that voters will back the same parties in different elections. And whilst this trend resulted in some Labour defeats (particularly in the West Midlands) it also resulted in huge Labour victories.


The city of Liverpool itself was largely not a success story for Labour in 2021, with the party losing 14pts in the city Mayoral vote and 7pts in the city council vote. Across the Liverpool City Region, the party won just 46% of the vote in the local council elections.

But even as his party struggled in Liverpool, incumbent Labour Mayor Steve Rotherham swept to a landslide victory, winning 58% of the vote across the region.

Rotherham’s huge victory was driven in part by massively outperforming Labour in safe Labour areas (he won 66% in the city of Liverpool, compared to Labour’s 51%) but also by winning hugely in areas that are less safe for Labour. Most notably, in Wirral (home to the marginal Parliamentary seat of Wirral West), Labour won just 39.5% of the vote in the council elections – Rotherham, however, won 52%.

Greater Manchester

But Rotherham’s success, whilst impressive, seems unimpressive when one looks at Andy Burnham’s landslide victory in Greater Manchester. Labour won just 46.2% of the vote across Greater Manchester in the local elections, but Andy Burnham won a stunning 67.3% of the vote, reportedly winning every single ward.

How did he do it? Labour is nowhere near that popular across Greater Manchester, as the council elections showed. Burnham’s sizeable victory was, like Rotherham’s, partly down to piling up votes in strongly Labour areas. In the city of Manchester, Burnham won 77% of the vote, compared to Labour’s 65%; in Wigan, Burnham won 70% to Labour’s 51%.

But Burnham also won enormously in areas that were more marginal, or even voted Conservative, in May. In Bolton, the Conservatives won the most votes in the council elections by a 3pt margin (38% to 35%). But Burnham won 64% of the vote within Bolton, defeating the Tory candidate by a 39pt margin.

In Bury, Labour barely defeated the Tories in the council election (41% to 40%). Burnham, however, won by a 38pt margin within Bury.

The most astonishing example of ticket splitting, however, was in Stockport. In the council elections, Labour won just 32% of the vote to the Lib Dems’ 31%.

Yet Burnham won 66% of the vote within Stockport, compared to the LDs’ 6%. Even as his party barely outpolled the Lib Dems in the council election, Burnham defeated them by a margin of nearly 60 percentage points.

These enormous differences in how people voted are important because they show how Burnham’s victory went beyond simply being a Labour candidate in a Labour area. Even as Labour struggled in Greater Manchester running on a UK-wide message of having no policies, Andy Burnham won landslide victories in areas that Starmer lost by promising to bring buses into public control.

Voters are more complicated than centrists assume. The same voter can, on the same day, back a Tory councillor and a Labour Mayor who favours public ownership of transport. Just because someone votes Tory, that doesn’t mean they are totally opposed to left-wing policies. Often voters just want a leader who stands for something and will work to change their lives for the better.

Burnham offered voters something, and they backed him in enormous numbers. Starmer is currently offering voters absolutely nothing, and the outcome in May was a disastrous defeat.

Labour will not win unless it offers voters a vision and a set of policies that they want. If Starmer is incapable of doing this, he should stand aside for somebody who is.

PCC election summary, 2021

In May 2021, most commentators focused on the council elections (Labour did very poorly) and the Mayor elections (in which Labour did well). But one set of elections was barely discussed: the elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). And that’s a shame, because the results were interesting.

What are PCCs?

Police and Crime Commissioners (or Police, Fire and Crime Commissioners in a few areas) are directly-elected positions that were introduced by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government in 2012. They oversee the work of police forces in England and Wales, hold the Chief Constable in each policing area to account and produce a Police and Crime plan. They replaced the existing Police Authorities. Scotland does not have PCCs, as policing is devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

In the past, turnout for PCC elections has been very low. The first elections for the PCCs were held in November 2012, and resulted in a turnout of just 15.1% (18.3% if the London Mayoral election, is included). Even the 2016 elections, held alongside local elections in many areas, resulted in a turnout of just 26%.

Currently, 39 of the 43 territorial policing areas in England and Wales are overseen by PCCs. In Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Greater London, the directly-elected Mayor’s responsibilities are combined with that of a PCC. In the City of London, the local authority retains the responsibilities of a Police Authority.

Previous election results

Following the May 2016 and May 2017 elections, the Tories oversaw 20 police areas, Labour 17, Plaid Cymru oversaw two and three PCCs were independents.

However, these areas are different sizes; South Wales, for instance, contains 500k people compared to Greater London’s 10 million. In terms of population, therefore, in May 2017, the figures were as follows:

The May 2021 elections

The table below shows the combined results of the May 2021 elections for PCCs and Mayors with PCC responsibilities (London, Manchester and West Yorkshire).

Following the 2021 elections, the numbers in terms of population were:

The outcome of the 2021 elections, therefore, is that nearly 6 in 10 people in England and Wales now live in policing areas that are overseen by a Conservative PCC.

Outside of London, that number rises to 7 in 10.


Another notable aspect of these elections was the increase in turnout.

In the 2021 elections, 15.2 million votes were cast, a turnout of 35.1% (+5.7pts).

Outside of London, turnout rose from 26.9% to 34.0% (+7.1pts).

Turnout ranged from 50.6% in Gwent (+1.7pts) to 22.9% in Humberside (+0.8pts)

The decline of independent candidates

When the first elections were held in 2012, independent candidates won 11 of the 41 police areas and won 1.3 million votes (23.1%). In 2021, however, no independent candidates were elected at all, and just 4% of voters supported independent candidates across England and Wales.


The next PCC elections are due to be held in 2024, and will be notable for two reasons.

Firstly, the Conservatives’ term in office is due to end in 2024, so the next PCC elections are expected to take place alongside a general election. This will result in a significantly higher turnout.

Secondly, the Conservatives have pledged to abolish the Supplementary Vote (SV) system that is currently used to elect PCCs. In 2021, the Conservatives won the most preferences in 32 police areas, but only won 30 seats once second preferences were counted.

Both of these differences mean that the next PCC elections are very unpredictable.

Final 2021 estimates (devolved)

Tomorrow, devolved elections will take place in Wales, Scotland and London. Here are my final poll averages and seat estimates. All changes are from the previous elections in 2016.

Welsh Parliament

Constituency ballot (FPTP)

  • LAB: 36% (+1)
  • CON: 28% (+7)
  • PC: 19% (-2)
  • LD: 5% (-3)
  • REF: 4% (+4)
  • ABOL: 3% (+3)
  • GRN: 1% (-2)
  • UKIP: 0% (-13)

Regional List ballot (PR)

  • LAB: 31% (-1)
  • CON: 25% (+6)
  • PC: 20% (-1)
  • ABOL: 7% (+3)
  • LD: 5% (-2)
  • GRN: 4% (+1)
  • REF: 3% (+3)
  • UKIP: 1% (-12)

Stats for Lefties seat estimate

  • LAB: 26 (-3)
  • CON: 17 (+6)
  • PC: 14 (+2)
  • ABOL: 2 (+2)
  • LD: 1 (-)
  • UKIP: 0 (-7)

Result: Hung Parliament

Scottish Parliament

Constituency ballot (FPTP)

  • SNP: 49% (+3)
  • CON: 21% (-1)
  • LAB: 21% (-2)
  • LD: 8% (-)
  • GRN: 1% (-)

Regional List ballot (PR)

  • SNP: 38% (-4)
  • CON: 22% (-1)
  • LAB: 17% (-2)
  • GRN: 10% (+3)
  • LD: 6% (+1)
  • ALBA: 3% (+3)

Stats for Lefties seat estimate

  • SNP: 66 (+3)
  • CON: 28 (-3)
  • LAB: 19 (-5)
  • GRN: 11 (+5)
  • LD: 5 (-)

Result: SNP majority of 3 seats

London Assembly

Constituency ballot (FPTP)

  • LAB: 43% (-1)
  • CON: 30% (-1)
  • GRN: 13% (+4)
  • LD: 9% (+2)
  • UKIP: 0% (-8)

Regional List ballot (PR)

  • LAB: 41% (+1)
  • CON: 31% (+2)
  • GRN: 15% (+7)
  • LD: 8% (+2)
  • UKIP: 0% (-7)

Stats for Lefties seat estimate

  • LAB: 11 (-1)
  • CON: 8 (-)
  • GRN: 4 (+2)
  • LD: 2 (+1)
  • UKIP: 0 (-2)

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%.


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.