Two and a half years since he became Labour leader and less than 24 months before the likely date of the next general election, a poll has found that almost half of voters do not know what Sir Keir Starmer stands for and only a third think he will become prime minister.
The findings increase pressure on the Labour leader to use this weekend’s crucial annual party conference to set out a clear agenda for government and present himself as a credible prime minister-in-waiting.
The poll comes as Labour seeks to draw clear dividing lines with Liz Truss’s Tories ahead of a general election expected in the spring of 2024.
Shadow cabinet minister David Lammy told The Independent that Mr Starmer deserved credit for getting Labour walking again after its landslide defeat in 2019 left it “on life support”.
He said that this week’s conference must see the party step up a gear and be “running” into the coming year as it seeks to complete the task of persuading voters it is a government-in-waiting.
Party strategists are warning against complacency after a string of opinion poll leads stretching back to the autumn of last year.
And today’s Savanta poll for The Independent drives home the message that, although voters might have been turned off the Tories by Partygate and the dethronement of Boris Johnson, Labour has work to do to convert that into active support for its agenda.
Its findings suggest that Mr Starmer has largely succeeded in moving Labour on from its crushing defeat in 2019, with 31 per cent of the 2122 people questioned more likely to vote for the party than under Jeremy Corbyn, against 15 per cent who said they were less likely.
And there were hopeful signs for Labour that voters preferred Mr Starmer on both policy and character grounds to his likely opponent in the general election in 2024, prime minister Liz Truss.
But alarmingly for Mr Starmer, 46 per cent of those questioned by the pollsters said they did not know what he stood for, against 34 per cent who said they did.
And – despite polls giving Labour a lead of as much as 13 points over the Tories – just 35 per cent said they expected Mr Starmer to be in Downing Street after the 2024 election, against 47 per cent who regarded it as an unlikely outcome.
Savanta director Chris Hopkins said the findings amounted to a warning to Labour that it could not rely on winning the keys to No 10 “by default” by simply hoping to benefit from voters turning away from the Truss brand of Thatcherite Conservatism.
“The first two years of Keir Starmer’s tenure have been OK,” said Mr Hopkins. “The public see him as more palatable than his predecessor, and indeed more palatable than the recently departed inhabitant of 10 Downing Street.
“But there’s always been something missing. While he polls well in terms of characteristics such as intelligence, competence and honesty, half of the public remain in the dark about what Keir Starmer actually stands for.”
But Mr Lammy told The Independent: “The starting point for any discussion about Labour’s performance under Keir Starmer is where Labour were at the end of the last general election.
“I wouldn’t even describe it as being on our knees. I think we were on life support.
“Here we are two and a half years later – despite a pandemic in which there was very little campaigning for over a year, we are revived, we are walking again.
“It’s my sincere hope that we come out of this conference season not just walking but running towards the next election.
“Of course, this conference is very important. It’s never based on a week, but I would hope over the next six months to a year we can really bed in the alternative government that we can be, so we move from being an opposition to being a government-in-waiting.”
On an array of personality issues, participants in today’s poll said they saw Mr Starmer as the more competent, honest, intelligent and strong choice for PM, judging him more in tune than Ms Truss with the needs of ordinary people and the best interests of the UK as a whole. The Tory leader led only on patriotism.
And on policy, Mr Starmer led Ms Truss for having the best ideas on the economy – by a narrow margin of 36 to 35 per cent – the cost of living crisis, health, education, the environment, energy and tax. Only on Brexit, law and order and the Ukraine war was the PM’s platform judged stronger.
However, when asked which of the pair they would prefer to lead the government, respondents made it a dead heat, with Ms Truss and Mr Starmer each backed by 34 per cent.
Siobhain McDonagh, the MP for Mitcham and Morden in south London, urged Mr Starmer to take the opportunity offered by the reaction to Friday’s mini-Budget to show voters Labour was different and where it stood on issues such as the NHS.
She said the last few years had offered “very little room for new ideas. We’ve had coronavirus and Boris Johnson as prime minister sucking up all the oxygen.”
As leader of the opposition, it was difficult to be heard “without being big and brash and saying outrageous things, which is simply not Keir’s style”.
But Friday’s mini-Budget – in which the chancellor slashed taxes, including for the rich, and increased borrowing – showed the Conservatives had “overwhelmingly left the centre ground ... and we have an opportunity to be heard”, Ms McDonagh said.
“I think he needs to take this opportunity now and show Labour is different. People want to know what we are going to do about the NHS and so on.”
Another Labour MP said there was a “time lag” in public perception, but that people were increasingly seeing him as a prime minister-in-waiting.
Savanta’s Mr Hopkins said that, although Ms Truss was making it “crystal clear” where she stood, the poll suggested Labour had failed to do the same.
“It continues to feel as though Labour are banking on the public – especially those who ditched Labour in 2019 and voted for the Conservatives – finding Truss and her self-professed brand of Thatcherism so off-putting that they end up just voting for Labour by default,” he said.
“Ultimately, it should be the job of Labour to win voters back, and therefore Starmer setting his stall out and appearing prime ministerial appears more important than ever, particularly if – as Labour are hoping – Trussonomics are not as popular as the government believes.”
The poll confirms Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham as Starmer’s runaway closest challenger for Labour’s top job.
Mr Starmer led the former health secretary by just one point among Labour voters asked who they would like to helm the party, with 28 per cent over Burnham’s 27. Deputy leader Angela Rayner was backed by 13 per cent of Labour voters, London mayor Sadiq Khan by 4 per cent and former leadership contender Lisa Nandy by 2 per cent.
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