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In Conversation with Professor John Curtice

Words by:
January 31, 2024

Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, gave his views on the current state of play in British politics in conversation with Tom Frackowiak, Partner at WA Communications. With the Conservatives in “deep trouble” and Labour seemingly headed to power, his analysis of the polls shed a lot of light on the year ahead. 

The conversation is the latest in a series of events on the upcoming general election with senior political and media figures hosted by WA.  

Deep trouble for the Conservatives… 

With polling currently showing a 20-point Labour lead, it is easy to forget that for the first two years of this parliament the Government were never consistently behind the Opposition. The scale of the turnaround in the Conservatives’ fortunes can be put down to two decisive events: the unravelling of the Johnson Government due to the ‘partygate’ scandal, and the ongoing economic impact of the short-lived Truss Government. The first of these allowed Labour to decisively pull ahead of the Conservatives, while the latter pushed Starmer’s party up to 50% in the polls. 

Following the dramatic departures of his two predecessors, Rishi Sunak inherited the premiership amid high hopes that the popular former Chancellor could reinvigorate the Conservative brand and pull off a 1992-style election victory.  

However, his popularity has waned – having entered office almost 30% more popular than his party, both Mr Sunak and the Conservatives now have -49% favourability ratings. For this reason, Labour’s 20-point lead has remained consistent despite Number 10’s efforts. 

Sir John Curtice attributes Conservative malaise in the polls to a misreading of evidence on the issues that matter to voters. While Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, prioritises tax cuts, the public – including a majority of Conservative voters – favour using the proceeds of increased tax to invest in the NHS and tackle record-breaking waiting lists. With dissatisfaction with the health service higher than in 1997, rescuing the NHS will undoubtedly be a key issue during the general election campaign. 

On immigration, an issue prioritised by Number 10, the polling also suggests strategic errors. Not only does the subject not have the same salience to voters as the NHS or the economy, but evidence suggests that perceived government failure on the issue is pushing voters towards Reform UK rather than keeping them with the Conservatives. 

A mixed bag for the Labour Party… 

While it is undoubtable that the Labour Party owes much of its success to the chaos within the Conservative Party, they have made significant steps forward since 2019. With Jeremy Corbyn bequeathing just 203 seats – the worst general election result since 1935 – to Keir Starmer, the fact that they now look poised to win is a major achievement. 41% of voters now see Labour as moderate and only 19% as extreme, a major reversal compared to 2019. 

Nevertheless, weaknesses persist for Labour. Most prominently, Mr Starmer’s personal favourability ratings trail those of his party by between 5 and 10 points. This is a marked contrast to the superstar status of Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 general election.  

Labour has only a mixed record in its efforts to win back working class Leave voters. Amongst Brexit supporters – who overwhelmingly backed Boris Johnson in 2019 – Labour has gained some support since 2019. Yet more of these voters (17%) have switched their vote from Conservative to Reform.  

Labour has also not managed to reassert its traditional overwhelming dominance amongst working class voters, instead seeing a relatively uniform increase in support across class groups. 

Furthermore, a plurality of voters (44%) still believe that Labour is not yet ready to form a government. The party may be the bookies’ favourite to win the next election, but it seems that they will not be riding a wave of enthusiasm through the campaign. 

Despite these issues, changing electoral geography is turbocharging Labour’s large lead. Data from YouGov’s recent MRP poll – which prompted a great degree of controversy – shows Tory support experiencing its sharpest decline in Conservative safe and marginal seats, making Labour gains more likely. Meanwhile, evidence from the local elections in May 2023 show clear signs of organised anti-Conservative tactical voting among Labour and Liberal Democrat voters. Following the premierships of Johnson and Truss, unionist Scottish voters have shifted their support to Labour from the Conservatives – a trend that has only been exacerbated by the turbulence within the Scottish National Party. 

But take everything with a pinch of salt. 

As usual, disclaimers about the value of polling evidence must be borne in mind. Shock election results in 1992 and 2015 show that pollsters can get it wrong as methodologies are tweaked to adapt to societal shifts. But it is worth noting that even if the polls are overestimating Labour support, this overestimation would have to be unprecedentedly large for Labour to lose in the autumn. 

However, the UK electorate has shown itself to be increasingly volatile over the last decade. Poll watchers can no longer rest of simplistic assumptions. Boris Johnson believed in 2019 that he was headed for a decade in power but was proven wrong. With this in mind, it is not so hard to believe that Labour could win an historic majority in 2024 only to find themselves overwhelmed by the significant economic and international challenges facing the UK today. 

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