Blow for Starmer as poll shows Labour supporters prefer Andy Burnham as leader

Findings increase pressure on Labour boss as party gathers in Brighton for conference

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Saturday 25 September 2021 21:58
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Angela Rayner says Keir Starmer looks 'strong' heading into Labour party conference

In a fresh setback for Keir Starmer as Labour’s annual conference gets under way in Brighton, a poll for The Independent has found that Andy Burnham is the preferred choice as leader, not only of voters in general but also among the party’s own supporters.

The exclusive Savanta ComRes poll for The Independent found despondency among Labour supporters about the chances of election victory under Starmer’s leadership and uncertainty among voters about who he is as a person and what direction he wants to take the country.

The findings will intensify pressure on Starmer this week to show he can make a breakthrough with the electorate in time for a general election, which is expected in 2023.

It sets up his keynote speech on Wednesday as a make-or-break moment to boost his own personal appeal to voters and set out a compelling case for Labour or face escalating calls for his replacement by someone better able to oust Boris Johnson’s Conservatives from power.

Mr Burnham is not currently eligible to stand for leader, as he is not an MP. But the Greater Manchester mayor has not given up hopes of another bid for the top job, saying after Labour’s dismal showing in local elections in May that “if the party were ever to feel it needed me, I’m here and they should get in touch”.

The exclusive Savanta ComRes poll for The Independent on the eve of the Brighton gathering found that Mr Burnham was top choice for Labour leader for 19 per cent of voters, against 14 per cent who plumped for Starmer and 7 per cent for London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Among those who voted Labour in 2019, Mr Burnham’s popularity rose to 25 per cent, against 22 per cent for Sir Keir and 8 per cent for Mr Khan. Left-wing alternatives performed poorly, with just 4 per cent of Labour supporters wanting the leadership to go to either deputy Angela Rayner or former shadow chancellor John McDonnell and 3 per cent to Rebecca Long-Bailey, who was defeated by Starmer in lasts year’s contest to succeed Jeremy Corbyn.

A majority of voters thought Labour was unlikely to win the next election under Starmer’s leadership – with 24 per cent rating it “not at all likely” and 31 per cent “not likely”, against 18 per cent who said a Labour victory was “likely” and 10 per cent “very likely”. Even among Labour supporters, the proportion thinking Starmer could win a the next election, at 44 per cent, only marginally exceeded the 42 per cent who said he was not likely to.

The poll reflected Sir Keir’s long-standing inability to pull Labour clear of the Conservatives, despite the problems Boris Johnson’s party has faced with the Covid crisis, Brexit damage to business, soaring NHS waiting lists, empty supermarket shelves, rocketing energy prices and squabbling over Northern Ireland.

Recent surveys have seen Conservatives maintaining an average five-point lead over Labour, with a margin of advantage hovering around 40-35 per cent.

Meanwhile, Starmer’s personal ratings have plummeted, with people thinking he is doing a bad job outnumbering by three to one (59-20 per cent) those who say he is doing well at the end of last month, after level-pegging at the start of 2021.

Today’s poll found that a clear majority (51-28 per cent) felt he had failed to articulate a clear vision of where he wants to take the party since becoming leader in April 2020.

Just 31 per cent said Sir Keir had succeeded in making Labour ready for government, against 50 per cent who said he had not. Some 32 per cent said he had provided an effective opposition to Mr Johnson’s Tories, against 48 per cent who did not believe he had.

And just 36 per cent said he had been able to give voters a clear idea of who he is as a person, with 45 per cent saying that he had not.

Despite howls of protest from some parts of the Labour left about Sir Keir’s move away from the  Corbyn agenda, voters were split over whether he had moved the party nearer to the centre ground of UK politics, with 38 per cent saying he had and 37 per cent disagreeing.

Asked to rate Starmer’s qualities against those of Mr Johnson, respondents in the poll found the Labour leader weaker, less inspiring and less patriotic than the prime minister. And a clear majority thought they would enjoy a drink with Johnson (55 per cent, against 45 per cent who would not) rather than Starmer (40-60 per cent).

In brighter findings for the Labour leader, he was rated more honest, more decisive and more statesmanlike than the PM. Some 55 per cent said he had good ideas for the country and 45 per cent that he did not, against a 50/50 split for Mr Johnson. More voters said Starmer had a clear vision for the country than Johnson.

And when asked if Starmer was able to understand the needs of ordinary people, 43 per cent said he could and 57 per cent that he could not, a far better split than the 36-64 per cent recorded for Johnson.

Labour was rated as having better policies than the Tories on health (35-27 per cent), social care (38-23), education (35-27), welfare (39-24), housing (37-23), pensions (33-25), gender equality (30-20), racial equality (31-21) and cultural issues (29-23).

But on some of the key issues on which the next election will be decided, Mr Johnson’s party maintained a clear lead, preferred over Labour on the economy by 34-27 per cent, on dealing with Covid by 31-25, on Brexit by 34-26, on law and order by 31-27 and on defence by 32-24 per cent.

• Savanta ComRes interviewed 2,112 British adults between 17-19 September.

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