Faced with a deeply unpopular Conservative government, the Labour Party has had a comfortable lead in the opinion polls for some time. But as the election approaches many factors could affect the outcome, and Labour is very keen not to take victory for granted. What will be the impact of public views of the leaders, changing policy priorities, and turnout, especially by those people who switched from Labour to Conservatives in 2019. So, at the beginning of election year, what do the polls tell us?
The Labour Party is very likely to win
As the chart above shows, for the last 18 months voting intention polls have consistently shown Labour in the lead. Although the size of lead has dipped slightly through 2023, it remains around 18%. If they can maintain that until the election they will be able to form a government with a comfortable working majority.
The most remarkable feature of the 2023 polls is, however, the absolute collapse in Conservative support. During the Truss premiership it fell below 25%, and since then it has hardly ever reached 30%. This heralds an unprecedented disaster: the party has achieved more than 30% in every general election since 1832.
If those figures were replicated evenly across the country, Labour would win more than 400 seats. That has only happened three times in the last century (Conservatives in 1935, and Labour in 1997 and 2001).
However, what matters is the number of MPs elected, and under our first past the post system, that depends on where the voters live. A major party whose supporters are evenly spread round the country will do better than one where they are concentrated in a few constituencies (although the reverse is true for minor parties).
To address this issue, pollsters try to predict results constituency by constituency, mostly using some form of MRP polling. These polls show a slow overall trend in the predicted number of Labour MPs. The three polls at the beginning of the year showed them winning more than 475 seats (an improbable majority of 150), but the two latest estimate the number at 372 and 426. This would still be a comfortable majority.
No-one has done a constituency level poll since then, but we are likely to see another flurry of activity as the pollsters adjust to the new constituency boundaries and the election approaches.
This time its not about leaders
In 2019, the personalities of Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson were a major factor in voting decisions. But neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer evoke that level of enthusiasm or dislike. Neither has stellar approval ratings, and one poll shows half of all people choosing “neither”.
Nevertheless, Keir Starmer is clearly well ahead on this measure. At the end of the year, YouGov asked, “How well is Keir Starmer/Rishi Sunak doing as leader of the Labour party/Prime Minister”. For both leaders the number of “well” voters was outnumbered by the “badly” ones. But Starmer’s minus 11 was far ahead of Sunak’s minus 41.
People are going to vote against the Conservatives
Much voting is always negative. Although parties agonise over policy proposals and the presentation of their leaders, many people simply vote against a party they dislike rather than for specific policies. This time it seems likely that people will vote for change.
One test of this is to ask, “to what extent, if at all, do you have a favourable or unfavourable opinion of the following politicians and political parties”. IpsosMORI regularly ask that question, and in their latest poll, dislike of the Conservatives was very clear. They languished in fourth place, with only 21% favourable, compared to 37% for Labour, 28% for Greens, and 23% for Liberal Democrats.
Turnout will matter
A critical issue will be turnout. If those who voted Conservative in 2019 switch to Labour, some of the more dramatic predictions may come true. But if they simply stay at home, the impact will be much less. One of the significant causes of variation between pollsters is how they deal with these undecided/don’t know voters, who constitute 14% of respondents in some polls. Some pollsters ignore them, assuming they will not vote, or will split like the rest of the electorate, while others ask probing questions.
What issues matter?
Parties sometimes overestimate the importance of specific policy promises, but they do matter, sometimes because of how they signal the party’s values, rather than the specifics.
IpsosMORI regularly ask what issues people were most concerned about. Between the end of 2022 and the end of 2023, concern with inflation and the economy both fell, while immigration, housing and defence rose. This suggests that the government is having some success in convincing people that they are tackling inflation (whatever the reality may be).
Immigration, which had been declining in importance since the Brexit referendum, has returned as an issue, and is a very clear divider between Conservative and Labour. Conservatives are five times more likely to see the small boats issue as one which will decide their vote. However, this is a mixed blessing for the Conservatives, whose continued emphasis on the issue may be drawing attention to their failure to deal with it.
Labour can run the economy
It is a well-tried truism of politics that in democracies, parties usually win when they are more trusted to manage the economy. Historically, the Conservatives have always led on this. However, after a peak at the beginning of 2020, the Conservatives’ score on this has declined steadily, with a dramatic drop during the Truss premiership, since when Labour have held a lead on this critical issue. Half of all people think the economy will get worse in 2024, and YouGov currently gives Labour a 10% lead on this. This is historically unprecedented, and it would appear that Labour’s persistent focus on fiscal discipline is paying off.
We know about culture wars, but won’t vote on them
There has been some concern that we might be following American politics in abandoning traditional politics for “culture wars” on values. Certainly more people are aware of issues like trans rights, but work by Kings College with Ipsos UK has found that most people disapprove of the divisions, and think that politicians are exaggerating them to distract from more important issues. Cultural issues may matter to some voters, but they are much more likely to be already committed Conservatives.
The Red Wall is back with Labour
A key factor in the 2019 election was the dramatic swing to the Conservatives in traditional Labour constituencies in the North of England. This may well have been a response to some very specific circumstances, including the government’s failure to “get Brexit done”. But in the last year Brexit has dropped off the list of ten most important issues. Redfield and Wilton have been polling the Red Wall constituencies regularly, and their most recent results show Labour leading by 20%, slightly higher than the rest of the country. In those constituencies, only half of the 2019 Conservative voters say they will vote Conservative again, and Rishi Sunak’s approval rating is -25, compared to Starmer’s -3.
Some people are now betting on 2 May as election day, to coincide with the local elections and on the back of an optimistic Budget. If so, we will know in March. In the meantime we will see a lot more polling.