Voices: Why is Starmer less popular than Sunak when voters hate the Tories?

On the face of it, this is a nonsense (Reuters)
On the face of it, this is a nonsense (Reuters)

Something strange is going on in British politics. To judge from the latest research, voters plan to give Keir Starmer a landslide election victory – but they think Rishi Sunak makes a better prime minister.

On the face of it, this is a nonsense: how can the joint winners of a political beauty contest be Labour and Sunak? Yet that is what appears to be happening. Opinion polls consistently put Labour as many as 30 points ahead of the Conservatives, on course to send them to parliamentary oblivion. Change the question from Labour vs Conservative to Starmer vs Sunak and you get a different result.

When the choice was put to a series of focus groups by polling company JL Partners, Sunak came out ahead in key aspects. Comments about Starmer from middle-of-the-road voters hardly gave the impression of a rampant leader storming to power. He was described as wooden, a turncoat, whiny, weak and annoying. By the same token, the descriptions of Sunak did not tally with that of a bloodied leader of an army about to be bludgeoned to defeat. He was called an intelligent fella, a nice guy, calm and collected.

James Johnson of JL Partners told The Independent: “At one and the same time, the polls show people believe Labour would make a better government – but in focus groups, with the key swing voters, they say Sunak is a better leader than Starmer.

“Voters are very disenchanted, with the Tories having seen the disastrous Truss government and the last days of Johnson. They think Sunak is doing better. But Labour has not sealed the deal, because of doubts about Starmer’s handling of the economy and his leadership qualities. Some voters think Starmer has ratted on previous left-wing pledges by becoming more Blairite.”

The results of the focus groups in the key “swing” seats of Wimbledon, Bury and Derby are not far out of line with opinion polls. For all the Tories’ travails, Sunak is only a handful of points behind Starmer in their personal ratings battle. Switch to the fight between the two parties, and the war is virtually over.

The Conservatives are so far behind that few pundits give them any hope of winning the next election, which is expected to be held late next year.

The current tussle between Labour and the Conservatives is often compared to 1997, when John Major’s tired and sleaze-ridden Tory administration suffered a landslide defeat to Tony Blair’s New Labour. At the equivalent point in the electoral cycle – two years before polling day – then, as now, Labour was miles ahead in surveys. But unlike now, the charismatic Blair was also miles ahead of Major.

It is a reflection of Starmer’s lacklustre leadership that if Labour wins power, it will be despite him, not because of him. It will be scant consolation to Sunak to know that the opposite applies to him.