Boris Johnson and the Conservative party’s polling over the last 12 months has been a bit erratic, hitting an astronomical 26% lead in April of last year but by October they were trailing Labour by 5%. However, they now find themselves back with a consistent, comfortable lead. While their lead is nothing remarkable and still short of their 2019 General Election number, it’s solid. Two recent polls have seen the Tories sitting at an 8% lead in the first, and another 8% lead in the second. After the ups and downs of the last 12 months how do we find ourselves in basically the same situation we did beforehand? Well, there’s two main reasons for that, Boris Johnson being the face of the Vaccine rollout, and the roadmap to normality has reaffirmed the tories’ grip on the British electorate. And Keir Starmer has been largely ineffective in building upon the Conservatives stumbles.
The UK’s first public vaccine was administered on December 8th of last year, since that point the UK has developed one of the most efficient and effective vaccine rollouts in the world. The UK currently has the 4th highest number of vaccine doses administered per 100 people. Behind only Israel, the UAE and Chile, far ahead of their closest European neighbours. The amount of credit Boris Johnson and the Conservatives deserve for the success of the vaccine rollout will be hotly debated by many, but no matter the outcome of such a debate, the rollout’s success and the government’s political fortunes will certainly be intertwined.
A fully vaccinated country promises normality, freedom and for a lot of people; feeling content. And what don’t people want when they’re content? Change. This feeling is already starting to show up in the polls. A poll taken shortly before the rollout began had the Tories at 38%, 2% behind Labour at 40%, a pretty damning showing for the party that had won the previous election by nearly 12% just 12 months earlier. But since then the rollout has only gathered more speed and the Prime Minister has released his roadmap for the coming months, with June 21st pencilled in as the day all social restrictions could be lifted. The end is in sight and it’s the Tories who are riding that wave. A recent YouGov poll conducted over the 18th and 19th of march saw the tories stand tall with a 9% lead, at 43% to Labour’s 34%.
But, if you had to label one person as the key member of the Conservatives’ resurgence it’s a tossup between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer. The government have had several points over the last 6 or so months where they have been vulnerable to attack. Yet, Keir Starmer and the Labour Party have routinely passed up that opportunity, being rather ineffective in highlighting to the public what the government have done wrong, offering meek resistance in the House of Commons, or abstaining altogether from a position on crucial issues. An approach which is being viewed by some as opportunistic and weak.
For example, the 1% NHS pay rise is largely unpopular, with the majority of people believing NHS workers deserve a higher increase to their pay after the gruelling 12 months they’ve had to endure. When Keir Starmer was asked about the paltry pay rise to the NHS staff he responded by saying it was “insulting”, but when he was further probed on what he would suggest is appropriate, he said “they need a pay rise.” And then, in the Houses of Parliament, Starmer suggested the lowly pay rise should be voted on, Johnson said no, and that was the end of that. This is not enough from the Leader of the Opposition, especially if we remember how Marcus Rashford turned the tide against the government over their initial refusal to continue providing free school meals during school holidays. Which resulted in a u-turn by the government and the continued supplying of school meals. This stark contrast in ability to oppose the government has hit home, a poll released in late January by IPSOS found that a much higher percentage of people believe Marcus Rashford is better than Keir Starmer at holding the government to account during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s right, a 23 year old Manchester United football player is viewed as a better opposition to Boris Johnson than the official leader of her Majesty’s opposition.
Starmer isn’t helped by criticisms of his political strategy to abstain on several key issues, whether they’re directly related to the government’s pandemic response or independent of that. In recent months alone the Labour Party abstained from the government’s proposed tier system following the November lockdown, the Overseas Operations bill, the Covert Human Intelligence act (referred to as the spycops bill) and originally the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill (crime bill) before deciding to vote against later on. All 4 of these events drew criticism; Starmer’s orders to abstain from the overseas operations bill and the spycops bill were questioned as these bills were condemned and opposed by many left-wing, centrist and independent groups. The overseas operations bill was blasted as being self-serving, doing more to protect the government ministry of defence rather than protecting the military personnel, drawing criticism from major military organisations and charities such as the Royal British Legion. And the spycops bill allowed Mi5, the police and other agencies to break the law in the name of national security, wellbeing of the UK’s economy and detecting/preventing crimes being committed, even permitting the use of torture and murder. This act was opposed by organisations such as Amnesty International, small political parties including the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats and several Labour mps for being dangerous, as no crime is ruled out of bounds. Even with some rebel mps, Starmer’s order to abstain was mostly followed and thus the two controversial bills passed the House of Commons with virtually no resistance.
Abstaining from the tier system vote was viewed by many as very opportunistic politically, just waiting to see how things went as to avoid criticism on how things pan out, leading to Boris Johnson to dubbing him “captain hindsight”. However, on a more general level, Starmer and Labour drew disapproval for refusing to have a say on the way in which the British public will have to live their lives, with many asking how can Labour not have any position at all on the national lockdown/tier system debate? Most recently, the crime bill has been the food of Starmer’s critics. Although the Labour Party were eventually told by leadership to oppose the bill, the fact that the initial plan was to abstain has been alarming to many Labour supporters and even mps. Starmer’s fellow mp, Dianne Abbott is one of them. People are quick to criticise Dianne Abbott, but she is a key voice in a major bloc of the Labour Party and any labour leader would be wise to listen to her and other major voices from the left wing of the party. Abbott goes as far to accuse Starmer of playing politics all in an attempt to recapture some of the lost voters who used to make up the red wall of labour seats up north.
When your own mps publicly accuse you of ignoring the merits of individual legislation and doing whatever you think will play the best politically, it’s safe to assume a lot of people will start to see through your game, and with Starmer they certainly are. Yougov’s poll tracker found that Keir Starmer’s political peak was last summer, with 48% of people saying he was doing well as leader of the opposition while only 21% said he was doing badly with the rest saying they don’t know. Since then, there’s been a complete flip. Now only 32% say he’s doing well, and 45% say badly. A similar picture is painted when people are asked if they think Keir Starmer is a strong or weak individual. After a couple of months as Labour leader just 14% of people said he was weak, compared to 35% who viewed him as strong with 51% saying they didn’t know him enough to make a judgement. That has also flipped, a plurality of people still say they don’t know enough to make a decision. But amongst those that do believe they know enough about him, there appears to have been a shift. Only 22% of people view him as strong while the people who view him as weak has shot up to 36%. All the abstaining has seemed to have had the reverse effect from what Starmer was hoping for, instead of avoiding unpopular positions on controversial issues to increase election credibility, he’s painted himself as a weak leader who’s main objective isn’t to hold the government to account but is instead playing politics.
So, while we can’t hide from the fact that the Conservatives are on the up in the polls, seemingly on the path out of this pandemic in a pretty strong position, we can continue to debate why that is. There are things this government have done right which they’ve championed, and things they’ve done wrong, which haven’t been pointed out to such an effect by the opposition. Because of this, the only people finding out about the potentially dangerous, power-seizing legislation and other controversial government actions are individuals who are especially interested in the subject and going out of their way to find this information. All the while the government are often on TV and splashing cash on social media campaigns with how many vaccines they’ve administered and when Boris will make it okay to go see your loved ones and the return of normality. With a more assertive, genuine opposition leader and party, the Conservatives may not be enjoying all the goodwill and polling bumps coming their way.