4 April 2021 marked one year since Keir Starmer became Leader of the Labour Party. During this time, the UK has seen a global pandemic and corresponding economic crisis. More than anything else in the past year, this event has provided a first test of Keir Starmer’s leadership at the helm of the Opposition. A comprehensive poll on Keir Starmer by us at Redfield & Wilton Strategies, conducted on 1-2 April, suggests that the British public has yet to come to a firm conclusion on Keir Starmer—an outcome that could be either a challenge or an opportunity for the Labour Party in the coming years.

Britons’ lack of consensus about Keir Starmer is evident in their division about his overall job performance since becoming Party Leader: 29% disapprove, 31% approve, and a plurality of 35% neither approve nor disapprove of Keir Starmer’s performance as Leader of the Labour Party. With his net approval rating at just 2%, this result is tied for his lowest-ever net approval rating since we began asking this question in May 2020, indicating that public opinion of Starmer is worsening.

Approval of Keir Starmer’s performance is highest among respondents aged 25 to 34 (35%) and lowest among those aged 65 and over (26%), which is likely a reflection of the younger average age of Labour voters.

48% of respondents who voted for Labour in 2019 say they approve of Keir Starmer’s performance as Leader of the Labour Party. By contrast, 70% of 2019 Conservative voters say they approve of Boris Johnson’s performance since becoming Prime Minister, showing that the Conservative leader is substantially more popular with his voters than Keir Starmer is with Labour voters. 

When it comes to the Labour Party overall, respondents are just as split: a plurality (35%) of respondents neither approve nor disapprove of the Labour Party’s performance since the 2019 Election, while 33% disapprove and 27% approve. Half (49%) of 2019 Labour voters approve of the Party’s performance, though a third (32%) neither approve nor disapprove. 

The significant proportion of British respondents who indicated that they neither approve nor disapprove of Keir Starmer may point to a lack of familiarity with the leader and his positions. This unfamiliarity could be due to a number of factors, including his relative newness and lower-profile position compared to the Prime Minister, his decision to abstain from certain major parliamentary votes, the news vortex created by the coronavirus pandemic, and limited news coverage. To the last point, when asked how much they had seen or heard about Keir Starmer in the news recently, 39% of respondents say they had seen only ‘some’ coverage. A quarter say they had seen Starmer in the news ‘quite a lot’ (27%) or ‘very little’ (26%), while just 8% say they saw him ‘a great deal.’

A considerable 42% of respondents say they feel unfamiliar—or at least more unfamiliar than familiar—with Keir Starmer and what the Labour Party stands for under his leadership. Even so, over half (58%) of respondents say they felt either very familiar, familiar, or more familiar than unfamiliar with Keir Starmer and his Party.

Respondents who voted for Labour in 2019 feel significantly more familiar with Keir Starmer and what Labour stands for under his leadership, at 79%.

As a result of the public’s unfamiliarity with the Labour Party’s Leader, Britons are divided about whether they can even evaluate him fairly: 53% of respondents say they have seen enough of Keir Starmer in the news to have made a fair judgement of him, while 47% say they have not. Conservative voters (62%) are slightly more sure than Labour voters (57%) that they have seen enough of Keir Starmer to make a fair judgement of him.

When it comes to Keir Starmer’s specific actions as Party Leader, the theme of respondents’ answers is again one of uncertainty. Undoubtedly the biggest event of Keir Starmer’s first year as Leader of the Opposition has been the public health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic, during which the Leader could have presented an alternative to the current Government’s approach. But the British public is largely unsure of what that alternative would have been: a plurality of respondents say they don’t know how a Government led by Keir Starmer would have differed with regards to lockdowns (32%), Government spending (34%), and easing restrictions (35%).

Aside from respondents who say they don’t know, there is no consensus on how a Labour Government under Keir Starmer would have handled the crisis. With regards to lockdowns, respondents believe a Government led by Keir Starmer would have been either more (29%), equally (22%), or less (17%) in favour of lockdowns compared to the current Government. The uncertainty may, in part, be due to Labour’s abstention from voting on key coronavirus restrictions in Parliament.

Similarly, a quarter of respondents say that a Government led by Keir Starmer would have been either more cautious (26%) or the same (24%) in its approach to easing restrictions during the current lockdown, while fewer respondents (16%) thought he would have been more impatient.

One area in which Keir Starmer has taken a firm stance is the Government’s approach to managing the economic fallout of the pandemic, criticising the insufficiency of Government spending and releasing his Party’s own plan for how to rebuild the UK after the crisis. Perhaps as a result of these criticisms and the Labour Party’s traditional preference for higher levels of Government spending, a slightly greater proportion of Britons think a Starmer Government would have spent more than the current Government (29%). A plurality (37%) of 2019 Conservative voters hold this view. That being said, a considerable fifth (20%) of the public believes a Government led by Keir Starmer would have spent less and 16% believe he would have spent the same amount, again revealing significant variance in opinion.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s Government has been applauded for its successful vaccination programme, which appears to have contributed greatly to an increase in the Conservative Party’s lead over the Labour Party. Britons are again divided on whether a Keir Starmer Government could have delivered the same results: 30% of respondents believe a Government led by Keir Starmer would have rolled out vaccines at a slower pace than the current Government, whereas 29% believe the pace would have been the same. Just 15% believe the vaccine rollout would have been faster under Starmer, and a further quarter (25%) say they don’t know.

Correspondingly, the British public has no consensus opinion about how Keir Starmer would have differed in his overall approach to addressing the coronavirus pandemic. Respondents say they believe a Government led by Keir Starmer would have handled the coronavirus crisis either worse (27%), better (26%), or neither worse nor better (27%) than the current UK Government. A fifth (21%) say they don’t know.

Demonstrating a degree of partisanship, half (49%) of 2019 Conservative voters believe a Keir Starmer Government would have handled the crisis worse than Boris Johnson’s Government, while a plurality (45%) of Labour voters believe Starmer would have handled the crisis better.

Beyond hypotheticals of how Keir Starmer might have handled the pandemic if he had been Prime Minister, Britons are just as undecided about his actual performance as Leader of the Opposition during the pandemic. One of the main tasks of the Opposition Party is to hold the Government to account. A third (33%) of respondents say they believe Starmer did neither a good nor bad job with respect to holding the Government to account for its response to the crisis. Otherwise, a quarter of respondents say Keir Starmer has done a bad job (26%) or a good job (24%).

Though they do form a plurality, the proportion of 2019 Labour voters who believe Keir Starmer has done a good job holding the Government to account for its pandemic response is not high, at 35%. A further 29% say he has done neither a good nor bad job and a fifth (21%) of Labour voters say Keir Starmer has done a bad job holding the Government to account during the pandemic.

Whether or not a Government led by Keir Starmer may have done a better job during the pandemic may be a moot question when the next election is held in 2024. History tells us such crises, once resolved, can quickly fade from the public’s view. In 1945, Labour under Clement Attlee famously beat Winston Churchill’s Conservatives in a General Election, despite Churchill having led the country to victory in World War II less than two months prior. Similarly, Keir Starmer may prove right not to have contended with the Conservative Party on their pandemic response.

The results from this poll make it abundantly clear that the British public remains largely undecided about Keir Starmer and the direction the Labour Party is taking under his leadership—but that is not necessarily a bad thing for the Party. While Starmer does not appear to invoke a significant reaction from the public, this indecision or indifference may be preferable than the level of polarisation and public scrutiny incurred almost instantly by his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

Indeed, almost half (48%) of respondents believe Keir Starmer has been a better Leader of the Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn, including 60% of 2019 Conservative voters and 42% of 2019 Labour voters. Conversely, 27% of Labour voters believe Starmer has been a worse leader than Corbyn.

A third (32%) of Britons also believe Keir Starmer has been a better leader of the Labour Party than Ed Miliband, though a close 31% say he has been neither better nor worse. Results are similar regarding former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with 30% saying Keir Starmer has been neither better nor worse and 29% saying he has been a better leader than Gordon Brown. Answers did not vary significantly between 2019 voters of the Labour and Conservative Parties in both questions.

However, a plurality (30%) of respondents say Keir Starmer has been a worse Leader of the Labour Party than former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to whom some observers have likened Starmer. Still, 28% believe Keir Starmer has been neither better nor worse a leader than Tony Blair, and a further 25% say he has been a better Leader of the Labour Party than Blair, including 30% of 2019 Labour voters.

In general, the lack of knowledge about Keir Starmer does not seem to translate into a strong dislike of him: 37% of respondents say that Keir Starmer is a likeable figure, 33% say he is not, and 30% say they don’t know. The significant proportion of Britons who say they don’t know whether Keir Starmer is a likeable figure or not demonstrates the opportunity Starmer still has to shape voters’ opinions of him.

Britons’ perception of Keir Starmer’s likeability vary considerably based on their vote in the 2019 Election: among Conservative voters, 46% find Keir Starmer to not be a likeable figure, while 50% of Labour voters say he is a likeable figure. That being said, the proportion of Labour voters who say he is not a likeable figure (25%) or say they don’t know (24%) is considerable.

Another opportunity or challenge may lie in the perceived ambiguity about how left-wing Keir Starmer is: a plurality (38%) of respondents say they don’t know if Keir Starmer is more or less left-wing than them. While 36% of 2019 Labour voters believe Keir Starmer is just as left-wing as they are, 20% believe he is less left-wing, and 30% say they don’t know.

Ultimately, one of the bigger hurdles that the Labour Leader will need to overcome in order to win the next election is voters’ lack of faith in his ability to do so. A plurality (43%) of respondents believe the Labour Party under Keir Starmer is not capable of winning the 2024 Election. Even many 2019 Labour voters express doubt: 22% say Labour is not capable of winning, and 27% don’t know. Half (51%) nonetheless do believe the Labour Party under Starmer will be able to win in 2024.

Furthermore, among all respondents, 35% disagree and 31% agree that Keir Starmer looks like someone who will one day be Prime Minister.

With the next General Election not expected to take place until 2024, Keir Starmer has three years to make his positions and leadership abilities known to the British public. For now, the relatively low-profile position he has cultivated for himself—whether purposefully or not—is arguably an improvement compared to his predecessors, which may serve the Labour Leader well while memory of Jeremy Corbyn is fresh in the minds of Britons. But as it stands, Keir Starmer and the Labour Party have work to do if they want the public to see Starmer as a future Prime Minister.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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