Starmer ‘must win over soft Tory voters for election success’

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<span>Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA</span>
Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Soft Conservative supporters make up the overwhelming majority of voters Keir Starmer will need to win over to have a chance of victory at the next election, according to new analysis revealing he has so far failed to gain much backing from the group.

With the Labour leader preparing for a conference that has been built up as the moment he will spell out a clearer vision and direction for the party, an extensive study into the electoral hurdles he faces has underlined the task of winning Tory voters.

Two in five voters who did not vote Labour at the last election are currently open to doing so in the future. Of those, 27% voted Conservative, 17% voted Lib Dem, 3% voted Green and 5% voted for other parties. (The rest did not vote.) However, when analysts took into account the likelihood of people to vote and where the votes were actually needed to win seats, the importance of Tory voters increased hugely.

When the group is adjusted for its likelihood to vote, soft Tory supporters account for 43% of the group. Among voters in the 150 most winnable seats for Labour, they make up 53%. Researchers then added the “double-counting” bonus – where winning a vote from a main opponent counts twice, as it is one fewer for them and one more for Labour. When that was taken into account, soft Tories made up 63% of the persuadable group.

The analysis was drawn up by Opinium’s Chris Curtis for the Progressive Britain group, which sits on the right of the Labour party. Curtis is also part of the team that produces opinion polls for the Observer. “It might seem appealing to concentrate on consolidating supposedly progressive voters under the Labour banner, targeting Lib Dems, Greens and non-voters,” the report concludes. “This would avoid having to reach out to Conservative voters in the centre ground of public opinion. However, such an approach has severe limitations.

“We end up at the unavoidable conclusion that Labour needs to focus its efforts on trying to directly win over these soft Tory voters (with the added, and very real, challenge of doing so without losing progressive voters in the process).”

Figures on the party’s left are already angry at Starmer’s leadership, over his refusal to restore the whip to former leader Jeremy Corbyn and in the belief that he has already abandoned some of the leftwing pledges that helped secure him the leadership.

But there are also complaints on the party’s right that he has failed to show decisively that he is placing winning the next election over retaining some kind of party unity. Some senior figures were also deeply frustrated by an interview by shadow business secretary Ed Miliband last week, in which he recommitted the party to the renationalisation of key utilities.

Starmer has made some progress in improving the party’s image, according to the survey. Among soft Conservative voters 58% think Labour has changed for the better, compared with just 4% who think it has changed for the worse. However, just 19% think that Labour is best placed to stick up for them, compared with 43% who think the Tories are.

Related: It’s increasingly clear: Labour’s leadership has little idea how to win a political fight | John McDonnell

The analysis, which included focus groups on the party’s performance under Starmer, said that the party had to do more to change its image with voters over the key issues of welfare, crime and the economy. It also warned against Labour being drawn into so-called “culture war” issues that were not picked out by voters as important in deciding their vote.

Starmer’s personal ratings have fallen since a very strong start as leader, though the study found that the view voters have of him is not yet set in stone. A poll of 250 people who had cooled towards Starmer since last summer found 19% saw him as being indecisive and changing his mind too often. The Conservative voters Labour needs to win over are particularly upset about the way he has opposed the government in recent months, and a perception he has been playing party politics during the pandemic. In total, 17% said that was the main reason they had gone off the Labour leader.

Nathan Yeowell, executive director of Progressive Britain, said: “Keir Starmer has an opportunity to shape a national programme that speaks to the whole country if he engages with enduring bread-and-butter concerns around the workplace, welfare and crime. Labour must be ruthless in going after soft Tory voters if it wants a swift return to national government. Our research shows that it needs to focus its efforts on trying to win over soft Tory voters in the seats that it needs to win in 2023 or 2024.”

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