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Why are the Conservatives still ahead in the polls? (and are Labour underperforming under Keir Starmer?)

By Gareth Jones
28 October 2020

By Gareth Jones

By all accounts, it has been a particularly difficult couple of weeks for the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party. After a series of negative headlines over its position on Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign, its public row with Andy Burnham over support for Greater Manchester, the Chancellor’s U-turn on economic support for businesses, the acknowledged failure of test and trace and wider problems with controlling the virus – the government has been left looking confused, incoherent and, in some cases, heartless. The level of discontent on the Conservative backbenches is palpable – as highlighted by this fascinating article by Paul Waugh in the Huffington Post, in which some Tory MPs express serious concerns about the Prime Minister’s misjudgements on public opinion and his overall ability to govern.

And yet, how have these concerns impacted on the general public’s voting intention? Well, take a look at the latest opinion polls and what does it show – the Conservatives maintaining a three-point lead over Labour. The latest poll by Deltapoll published on 26th October show the Conservatives on 42% ahead of Labour’s 39%. This poll is not untypical - most opinion polls over the past 4-5 months have shown the Conservatives maintaining a small lead between 1-5% (although some have the two parties on level pegging). In fact, while there was some volatility in the early stages of the pandemic -- with an initial surge of support for the government which died down after a couple of months and the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader -- the polling numbers have remained largely stable since May. The only event that generated any noticeable shift in public opinion since then was the revelation of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle. That episode clearly damaged support for the government, but – interestingly – none of the other supposed policy failures or scandals (eg the A-level results fiasco, or any of those mentioned above) seem to have made a dent. A legitimate question to ask is why?

From a Labour party perspective, a further question is should there be more concern that they have been unable to capitalise on the government’s difficulties and perceived incompetence? Three years ago, at the height of Theresa May’s difficulties as Prime Minister, Tony Blair gave an interview in which he declared that Labour should be 20 points ahead and criticised Jeremy Corbyn for being unable to capitalise on the government’s difficulties. This enraged Corbyn’s supporters at the time and some of them have now used the same line to attack Starmer in the current circumstance. Putting their motivations aside for a moment – do they have a point? Are Labour under Starmer underperforming?

Before we can offer any explanations on people’s voting intentions and the two parties’ relative performance, it is perhaps worth looking at the polling data more closely. While the headline numbers have been broadly stable, the underlying numbers reveal some interesting developments. Changes in party support among different UK regions, social class and gender are noteworthy, but perhaps the most evident changes are in age demographics. Various polling companies’ data show that in the past few months the Conservatives have lost substantial support among middle-aged voters to Labour. Yougov, Deltapoll and Opinium show a 20-30 point swing towards Labour among people in their 50s and early 60s. Meanwhile, Labour has lost a little bit of support among younger groups, although only a few of them appear to have gone to the Conservative Party. Overall, Labour’s support among working-aged voters is now substantially more balanced when compared to its reliance on the youth vote under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Where Labour has completely failed to make any progress, however, is on the over 65s. All polls show that the Conservatives already had a huge lead over Labour in this group (around 30-40 points) and some polls show that they have actually increased this lead by an 4-5% additional points in the past few months. Given the size and electoral importance of this age cohort, this increase goes some way to counterbalance any loss of support elsewhere. When looking at the approval ratings for the two party leaders, again Boris Johnson’s ratings have steadily fallen across most age groups and Starmer seems to have made some progress (and now has a clear overall lead) – with the exception of the over 65s, where there is still a preference for the Prime Minister.  

A conclusion you can draw from this is that despite the negative headlines, people at retirement age are resolutely sticking with Boris and the Conservatives. This enthusiastic support is protecting the headline numbers, while there are signs that the Conservatives are losing support among other groups.

Why is this the case? Well, the polling data gives some indication. The over 65 age group is as concerned about Covid-19 as any other demographic, but they are far less likely to disapprove of the government’s handling. Generally, they are more inclined to give the government the benefit of the doubt and do not think they’re at fault for many of the issues the country now faces. They are less likely to engage in day-to-day political developments on social media and they are certainly less persuaded by the Twitter commentariat. It is also true that the consequences of lockdown and economic uncertainty will affect this group differently, which undoubtedly affects their attitudes and motivations. Importantly, this age group voted overwhelmingly for Brexit and the view many of the driving forces behind the EU Referendum vote (eg sovereignty and immigration) as huge motivating factors in their party allegiance – and maintains their lingering distrust of the Labour Party.

These factors do not explain the whole picture, but it is clear that for as long as this age group remains loyal to the Conservative Party, the polls will remain relatively encouraging for the government in spite of all the challenges it faces. As for Labour, the underlying data shows that they have made progress under Keir Starmer across different parts of the country and across a range of different socio-economic groups, but they will not command a strong poll lead unless they find a way to appeal to people at retirement age.