Alan Spence, Alex Wilson, Bert Rothkugel, Chloe Hopkins, Josuke Higashikata, Patrick Lefevre, Pawel Kaczmarski, Scott Folan, sn , Stephen Kaar and Ville Forsman
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Since Keir Starmer became Leader of the Labour Party, both he and the Labour Party have seen their poll ratings increase. Keir Starmer's approval ratings, in particular, are often cited by his supporters, as are the polls that show Starmer ahead when voters are asked who would be the best Prime Minister. In response, Starmer's critics often point out that Labour is still behind in the polls, and that - on average - Starmer is still behind in best PM polling.
In terms of voting intention, Labour remains 6pts behind the Conservatives on average - although that is a significant improvement for Labour compared the 20pt lead that the Conservatives had in April.
So what do Starmer's approval ratings tell us? In this article I'll analyse Starmer's approval ratings and his best PM polling to try and understand whether we should be impressed by Starmer's approval ratings.
Before we begin, let me just explain what I mean by net approval ratings.
The net rating is the difference between the approve percentage and the disapprove percentage.
So if 41% approve, and 40% disapprove, the net rating is +1.
Meanwhile, if 35% approve and 39% disapprove, the net rating is -4.
The last two Labour Leaders consistently performed poorly in approval rating polls. For most of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, a majority of voters disapproved of his leadership, with Corbyn achieving positive net ratings only once (in July 2017). Corbyn's highest net approval rating was +4 (July 2017) whilst his lowest net approval was -51 (June 2019).
Ed Miliband, meanwhile, only achieved positive approval ratings in September and October 2010; he never achieved positive approval ratings ever again. Miliband's highest net approval was +12 (October 2010) whilst his lowest net approval was -46 (November 2014).
In terms of Best Prime Minister polling, the last time that a Labour Leader was ahead of a Tory Leader (on average) in best PM polling was in December 2008, when Gordon Brown was 3pts ahead of David Cameron. Ed Miliband never averaged within 8pts of David Cameron, whilst Jeremy Corbyn at his best polled 1pt behind Theresa May (in October 2017 and May 2019).
Keir Starmer's approval ratings
So, considering this context, how is Keir doing?
In August 2020, Keir Starmer's average approval ratings were as follows (changes since July):
Approve 40% (-1), Disapprove 26% (+1), Don't Know / Neither 35% (+1)
Starmer's net rating was +14, down from +16 last month. Although this is his lowest net rating since April, it's still far better than anything ever achieved by Jeremy Corbyn.
Over a third of voters (35%) either responded Don't Know or said that they neither approved nor disapproved of Starmer. Given that Starmer has been Leader for over five months, this is a surprisingly high number of people with no opinion.
Some of Starmer's critics have argued that many of these undecided voters will form a negative opinion of him as time goes on; however, so far this doesn't appear to be happening. Since April, the percentage of voters with no opinion of Starmer has declined from 50% to 35% (-15) but Starmer's net approval rating has actually increased from +12 to +14.
It is worth emphasising, however, that - whilst Starmer's net ratings are impressive - the percentage approving of him is consistently less than the percentage who approve of Boris Johnson. This may go some way towards explaining how Labour is 6pts behind in the polls despite Starmer's +14 net approval rating.
In November 1994 - five months after Tony Blair became Leader - an Ipsos MORI poll showed that 41% of voters were satisfied with Blair (a net rating of +21) whilst just 23% were satisfied with John Major (a net rating of -43). Blair was not only popular in net terms, but was also popular when compared to John Major. This almost certainly contributed to the 31pt poll lead that Labour achieved in an Ipsos MORI poll in November 1994.
For comparison, in August 2020, 40% of voters approved of Keir Starmer on average (a net rating of +14). But unlike in the 1990s, when Major was unpopular, an astonishing 41% of voters still approve of Boris Johnson (a net rating of -4). In the 1990s, the Labour Leader was massively more popular than the Tory Leader. That simply isn't the case today. Instead, the two Leaders are evenly matched in terms of approval.
This matters because the 2024 election will not be a referendum on whether people approve or disapprove of Starmer. It will be a choice between two parties and two party Leaders, and if voters approve of Starmer but prefer Boris Johnson, then we'll lose.
Having said that, Starmer has substantially improved his approval percentage relative to Boris Johnson's over the last few months. Hopefully this will improve even further over the next few years.
Approval vs Favourability
One thing that is notable about Starmer's approval ratings is that there is a sizeable gap between voters' perceptions of his performance as Leader (i.e. if he's doing well/badly) and whether voters feel favourably towards him.
The graph below shows the monthly averages of polls that measured perceptions of Starmer's job performance and polls that asked about favourability.
For job performance polling, I included polls that asked voters whether:
- They think Starmer is doing well/badly
- They approve/disapprove of Starmer's performance
- They are satisfied/dissatisfied with Starmer's performance
As you can see, there is an increasingly large gap between perceptions of Starmer's job performance (where his net rating is +19) and his favourability rating (where his net rating is +7). Starmer's favourability rating (36%) far more closely resembles Labour's voting intention (37%) than his approval rating (42%).
There are thus a notable number of voters who approve of the job that Starmer is doing as Labour Leader, but who don't actually like him, don't think that he'd be the best Prime Minister and won't vote for his party. In my view, this matters because if Tory voters think that our Leader is doing well, but don't like him, don't think that he'd be the best PM and don't want his party to win, then they aren't going to vote for us.
Interestingly, this gap between favourability and approval does not appear to be affecting Boris Johnson; his favourability and approval in August were virtually identical.
Meanwhile, whereas more voters approve of Starmer's job performance (42%) than Boris Johnson's (40%), Boris Johnson has a clear lead in favourability ratings (42% feel favourably towards Boris Johnson, but just 36% feel favourably towards Starmer).
However, it should still be noted that Starmer's favourability rating is still positive. For comparison, Jeremy Corbyn's favourability rating was -45 in April. So whilst there is a gap between his approval ratings and his favourability ratings, his favourability ratings are a massive improvement compared to Corbyn's.
Best Prime Minister polls
In recent weeks, Keir Starmer has polled ahead of Boris Johnson in some polls that asked voters who would make the best Prime Minister, although many other polls still show him behind. On average, Starmer is now just 4pts behind Boris Johnson in Best PM polling - a significant improvement from April 2020, when he was 24pts behind.
Starmer's achievement is certainly impressive, but the argument that Starmer is massively more popular than the Labour Party seems particularly strange in the context of these numbers, given that:
a) Starmer (33%) is averaging less in Best PM polls than Labour (37%) is averaging in polls
b) Boris Johnson's average lead in Best PM polls (4pts) is not that much smaller than the Conservative Party's average lead in voting intention polls (6pts)
The graph below shows Starmer's Best PM average and Labour's polling average since Starmer became Leader. Rather than being massively more popular than his party, the polls would suggest that Starmer and Labour are largely as popular as each other.
So, in summary:
- Keir Starmer's average Best PM polling has risen from 22% to 33% (+11) since April, with Boris Johnson's lead falling from 24pts to 4pts
- Keir Starmer has had a positive approval rating for 5 months in a row, something that neither Corbyn nor Miliband ever achieved
- Boris Johnson is still ahead on average in Best PM polling
- The percentage who approve of Keir Starmer (40%) is still less than the percentage who approve of Boris Johnson (41%) and Boris Johnson remains popular with over 40% of voters
- Despite Keir Starmer's approval ratings, Labour is still behind in the polls by 6pts on average
If the general election was tomorrow, one might consider these numbers to be disappointing. After all, Starmer is polling behind Boris Johnson and Labour is polling behind the Tories. If the election was held tomorrow, we would probably lose.
But with four years to go until the next election, Keir Starmer has plenty of time to improve both his and Labour's polling even further. If this is how the polls look after just five months, I would be very surprised if Labour and Starmer are not ahead in the polls on average by the end of 2020.