Good Thursday Afternoon,
It’s time to take a look at the polls! In this final issue of Magnified this year, we finish with a review of the public’s views of the UK Government over the past year.
This week, our research also covered:
- Britons’ Christmas plans
- Americans’ and Britons’ thoughts on learning to live with coronavirus
- The American public’s opinions on Government spending
As the year draws to a close, we would also like to hear your thoughts on Magnified so far. Do you enjoy reading Magnified? What could be better? Please send your reader comments and feedback to [email protected]!
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Westminster Voting Intention
Labour 39% (+2)
Conservative 31% (-1)
Liberal Democrat 13% (+2)
Green 6% (-1)
Reform UK 5% (-2)
Scottish National Party 5% (+1)
Other 2% (+1)
Changes +/- 13 Dec
All Net Approval Ratings
Rishi Sunak: +11% (-4)
Keir Starmer: -8% (–)
Boris Johnson: -29% (-7)
Changes +/- 13 Dec
Our last voting intention poll of the year finds that the Labour Party has once again extended its lead over the Conservative Party: 39% (+2) say they would vote Labour if there were to be an election tomorrow, compared to 31% (-1) who say they would vote Conservative. Labour’s 8-point advantage this week represents another new largest lead for the party since we began tracking voting intention after the 2019 General Election, while the Conservative Party has again fallen to a new low in voting intention results.
The picture remains bleak for the Conservatives, as news surrounding various Government Christmas parties held in contravention of coronavirus restrictions last year continue to dominate the headlines. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s net approval rating has declined further still to -29% this week, a 7-point drop compared to last week and a 21-point drop compared to four weeks ago. For the first time we have recorded, over half (51%) of Britons disapprove of Johnson’s performance, including a notable third (33%) of 2019 Conservative voters.
However, as we noted in last week’s edition of Magnified, most 2019 Conservative voters remain unwilling to give their vote to the opposition parties. 8% of those who voted Conservative in the last General Election say they would now vote Labour, a figure which has decreased two points since last week. Likewise, just 3% (+1) of Conservative voters say they would now vote for the Liberal Democrats.
Instead, this demographic has largely grown more uncertain about whom to vote for. 19% of Conservative voters say they don’t know how they would vote in a General Election, compared to just 4% of Labour voters.
Moreover, Conservative voters’ motivation to cast their ballot to begin with has clearly declined. For only the second time we have recorded, 2019 Labour voters (61%) are now more likely than 2019 Conservative voters (59%) to say they would be ‘certain to vote’ if an election were held tomorrow.
While the Conservative Party is thus not losing droves of voters directly to the Labour Party, at least for the time being, the North Shropshire by-election nevertheless demonstrates that the changes in individuals’ motivation to vote can have serious consequences. With the Conservatives losing a seat that they have held for nearly 200 years, the message is loud and clear: Britons’ tolerance for the Government’s shortcomings is drying up quickly, and there is a palpable demand for an alternative.
The problem for Labour, however, is that their party still does not represent a viable alternative for much of the public. Even amidst the most significant crisis of faith the current Government has experienced, respondents are only split on whether Keir Starmer (35%) or Boris Johnson (34%) would be the better Prime Minister at this moment, with almost as many (31%) respondents indicating that they do not know.
In fact, uncertainty about which of the two leaders is superior has become a dominant position in many regards. In recent weeks, as in our latest poll, pluralities of respondents have said they do not know whether it is Starmer or Johnson who best embodies the descriptions ‘is a strong leader’ (40%), ‘knows how to get things done’ (36%), and ‘can lead the UK out of the coronavirus pandemic’ (37%). Larger pluralities continue to say they don’t know which of the two embodies other key descriptions like ‘tells the truth’ (40%) and ‘cares about people like me’ (40%).
The opportunity is clearly there for the Labour Party to seize, but will they seize it? Or will others? The Labour Party has been the most obvious beneficiary of the Government’s recent struggles, with its substantial lead in voting intention. But as we saw in North Shropshire last week, Labour is not the only party reaping the rewards of the Conservatives’ blunders. The Liberal Democrats have gained an additional seat in Westminster, and this week’s voting intention poll finds 13% of respondents indicate they would vote for the Liberal Democrats, the highest voting intention result we have recorded for the party.
Ultimately, everyone has much to ponder over the holidays. While the Labour Party has been benefitting from the Conservatives’ self-destructive behaviour, the Conservatives still continue to benefit from the Opposition’s lack of widespread appeal. Which party will be the first to find a way to break this stalemate? The political battlefield certainly looks more open now than it did at any point in the past 12 months.
Chart of the Week
What does it mean to ‘learn to live with coronavirus’?
In both the United States (66%) and the United Kingdom (74%), there is substantial agreement with the idea that coronavirus is here to stay and that Americans and Britons, respectively, need to learn to live with the virus. In the US, this assessment is shared by both 67% of 2020 Trump voters and by 71% of 2020 Biden voters, marking a rare instance of bipartisan agreement. Similarly, in the UK, both 79% of 2019 Conservative voters and 75% of 2019 Labour voters agree.
Despite this general agreement in both countries, however, ‘learning to live with the virus’ means something different to different people: 54% of Americans say living with the virus means adjusting to a lifestyle mostly different from before the pandemic, whereas 46% believe it means returning to a lifestyle mostly similar to before the pandemic. In the UK, public opinion is similarly split: 52% say ‘learning to live with the virus’ means adjusting to a lifestyle mostly different from before the pandemic to them, while 48% understand it as meaning returning to a lifestyle mostly similar to before the pandemic.
Especially in the US, interpretations of the phrase appear to be influenced by political affiliation. Donald Trump voters (57%) are more likely than Joe Biden voters (35%) to understand it to mean mostly returning to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. In the UK, on the other hand, political preferences play a less distinctive role. Among 2019 Conservative voters, there is an equal split between those who understand ‘learning to live with the virus’ as returning to a lifestyle mostly similar to before the pandemic (50%) and those who understand it as adjusting to a lifestyle mostly different from before the pandemic (50%). Among Labour voters, views are similarly divided, with 46% adopting the former and 54% adopting the latter understanding.
These differences have strategic consequences for both Joe Biden and Boris Johnson when it comes to how and when they may be able to claim that they have led their respective countries out of the pandemic.
Here, the American President enjoys the advantage that his voters tend to lean in one direction in their views. With 65% of 2020 Biden voters saying that ‘learning to live with the virus’ means adjusting to a lifestyle mostly different from before the pandemic, there is less pressure for Biden from his supporters than there is respectively for Johnson to proclaim victory over the pandemic.
Johnson, with a voter base that is more polarised on what ‘learning to live with the virus’ means, finds himself in a more difficult position. With 50% of his voter base expecting a return to their pre-pandemic lifestyle, there is both less tolerance for the introduction of new restrictions and a higher threshold for when the Prime Minister may credibly be able to declare a clear victory over the pandemic in the UK.
Our Global Data
Great Britain: Two weeks ago, 81% of Britons intended to have normal Christmas and New Year’s celebrations this year, while 19% did not intend to have normal celebrations. Now, the proportion of those intending to have normal celebrations has declined by 13 points to 68%. While this change suggests that official warnings over the Omicron variant of coronavirus may be influencing Britons’ holiday plans to some extent, this shift is arguably less dramatic than could have been expected, given official rhetoric.
Great Britain: If the Government were to re-introduce rules limiting how many people Britons can celebrate Christmas with to only those from their own household or support bubble, 59% say they would not fully comply with such restrictions. Instead of full compliance, 35% say they would ‘mostly comply,’ and 24% say they would ‘hardly comply.’
United States: Americans’ views on the United States’ relationship with the United Kingdom vary significantly according to age. While 70% of 55-to-64-year-olds and 74% of those aged 65 and above consider the UK to be more of an ally to the US, just 42% of 18-to-24-year-olds and 44% of 25-to-34-year-olds feel the same. In fact, a notable 21% of Americans aged 25 to 34 deem the UK to be more of a threat to the US and its interests.
United States: When asked to assess how they think the UK has handled the coronavirus pandemic in comparison to the United States, 37% of Americans now think the UK has handled the pandemic about the same as the US, compared to 24% who think the UK has handled the pandemic better and 13% who think the UK has handled the pandemic worse. Compared to half a year ago, these figures mark a small increase in the proportion thinking the UK has handled the pandemic better, with 19% having expressed this point of view in May 2021. At the time, 36% of Americans thought the UK had handled the pandemic about the same as the US, and 18% thought it had handled the pandemic worse.
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Long Exposure: In-Depth Analysis
A Year in Review: Where Does the UK Government Stand at the End of 2021?
As the second year of the current Government’s term comes to an end, there is no doubt that this is not the conclusion to 2021 that Boris Johnson (or anyone) was hoping for. With the Conservative Party in turmoil and daily coronavirus cases hitting a new peak, this year cannot end fast enough for Johnson.
It may be a distant memory already, but things were actually going fairly well for the Government in the first half of the year. From early February through late June, Boris Johnson enjoyed a positive net approval rating, peaking at +18% in March. His Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak elicited even more favourable reviews, hitting a 2021 high of +39% in March as well.
Driven by the belief that the situation was coming under control, the proportion of Britons who believed the Government was taking the right measures to address the pandemic outweighed those who believed it was not for the first half of the year. In addition, the positive impact that the successful vaccination rollout had on perceptions of the Government’s pandemic response cannot be overstated: in a March poll, a majority (53%) agreed that the vaccine rollout made up for any deficiencies in the early days of the pandemic.
Yet, the pandemic did not end. With the emergence of the Delta variant in July, case numbers in the UK hit a new high, and the progress that the Government had made in convincing the public that it was fit to manage the pandemic dissipated.
Even though vaccines continued to provide protection and the Government signalled Britons could return to ‘normal’ by lifting all domestic restrictions on 19 July, the pandemic lingered. The proportion of Britons who believed the Government was taking the right measures in response to the pandemic dropped from 50% on 5 July to 29% on 25 July, with a plurality (47%) on the latter date thinking the restrictions in place were too relaxed. As we pointed out in issue 15 of Magnified, the comparison with countries such as Taiwan which continued to pursue a ‘zero covid’ strategy became uncomfortable. In the UK, disillusionment with the Government’s management of the pandemic began to grow—and this disillusionment proved to have a long-term effect on public views of the Government and the Conservative Party more broadly.
In the midst of this situation, with the pandemic still lingering but no longer dominating the agenda as much as earlier in the year, many voters began to focus on more traditional issues such as the economy and immigration again. Problematically, however, this refocus did not benefit the Government. To be sure, voters continue to trust the Conservative Party more to manage the economy than they trust Labour. The Conservatives’ lead in this regard, however, has been shrinking from 15 points in June to 6 points now.
Indeed, for many Britons, there is no longer a clear sense of what the Conservative Party stands for. In October 2021, a month after the Government had announced a 1.25% increase in National Insurance contributions starting from April 2022, 42% of Britons disagreed that the Conservative Party currently stands for lower taxes—suggesting that a significant proportion of voters no longer associated the party with one of its core tenets.
The issue of immigration—again one in which voters traditionally trust the Conservatives more than Labour—also provided little respite for the Government. As we highlighted in a previous issue of Magnified, illegal channel crossings have given rise to significant dissatisfaction with the Home Secretary’s management of the UK’s borders. Net approval of the Government’s performance on immigration has plummeted from an already negative -11% in July 2021 to a damning -31% now.
Whereas the Conservatives still had a 10-point lead over Labour as the party Britons trust most to handle immigration earlier this year in February, this advantage has now disappeared completely. In our latest poll, a plurality says they trust Labour (28%) more to handle immigration than the Conservatives (25%).
Then, with public support already weakened, it all came crashing down for the Conservatives. The first major setback came in late October, when it was revealed that Conservative MP Owen Paterson had breached parliamentary lobbying rules. Matters were made worse when Boris Johnson issued a three-line whip instructing MPs to vote to delay Paterson’s suspension. In the aftermath of the scandal, 63% of Britons agreed there is a culture of sleaze in the UK Government. By contrast, in April of this year, when things were going well with the pandemic, that 50% agreed there was a culture of sleaze in the UK Government following former Prime Minister David Cameron’s Greensill lobbying scandal seemed forgivable.
On the back of the public outcry over the Owen Paterson scandal, Labour achieved its first lead in our voting intention polls in 2021. Still, the advantage was minimal (two points) and the Conservatives regained their edge within three weeks. But when news broke of an alleged Christmas party held in Downing Street last year at a time when the Government had banned such gatherings, the Boris Johnson Government faced a level of public outrage that it had not yet known.
The Government’s disregard for its own rules fundamentally called into question the credibility and legitimacy of these rules—and by extension, of the Government itself.
As these allegations about further restriction-breaking Government Christmas parties came to light, Britons gave Labour its second voting intention lead of the year, which has since extended to 8 points.
As 2021 draws to a close, one cannot help but feel a sense of déjà vu. With record numbers of coronavirus case numbers and the Government’s efforts to increase vaccine uptake, this time of booster shots, the similarities to the beginning of this year are undeniable. Yet, given all that has occurred in the past year, such similarities are only surface level. Above all, trust and satisfaction in the coronavirus vaccines is no longer a driver of public support for the Government and could even empower more public opposition to the Government, should it re-introduce restrictions.
The events of the last 12 months have evidently shaken support for the Government and the Conservative Party. Going forward, recovering its moral integrity will be one of the key challenges it faces, perhaps with new leadership. On matters of policy, especially on the economy, the party will furthermore have to make it clear to voters what it stands for once again. Given traditional perceptions of the Conservatives’ competence in this area, a well-communicated economic strategy, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, may help it regain some of the favour it has lost—though inflation woes are formidable.
On the pandemic itself, the Government will need to re-establish its image as a competent manager of public health (and stick to its own rules). The important lesson here, however, is that pandemic management alone can no longer serve as the sole foundation of public support, as it did at the beginning of this year. Undoubtedly, we all hope that the Omicron variant will turn out to be as mild as some early evidence suggests. But even should such good fortune come, disillusionment with the Government is palpable.
Perspective: The R&WS Take on the News
Joe Manchin kills the Build Back Better Act, Joe Biden’s ambitious legislative package
The Economist | 19 December 2021
Our take: After months of negotiations, West Virginia’s Democratic Senator Joe Manchin announced he would no longer back the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better Act. Early on, Manchin had been opposed to the legislative package’s initial headline spending figure of $3.5 trillion over the next decade, which was later trimmed down to $1.7 trillion by House Democrats before passing it in November. Manchin’s concerns over the bill’s price tag likely resonate with a considerable proportion of American voters. 53% overall, including not only 79% of 2020 Trump voters but also 34% of Biden’s own voters, think the Government is already spending too much at the moment, compared to just 11% who think it is spending too little.
UK economic growth slower than first thought before Omicron hit
BBC | 22 December 2021
Our take: Revised figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that the UK’s economy grew at a slower pace than first estimated between July and September. Amidst this development, 33% of Britons say that their financial situation has worsened in the past three months, compared to only 12% who say their financial situation has improved. Overall, 35% approve and 39% disapprove of the Government’s performance with regard to the economy, resulting in a -4% net approval rating. In addition, 47% think the Government is not taking the right measures to address the economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, compared to 32% who think it is.
R&WS in the Media
Each week we bring you the top stories from the media that have featured our research.
Exclusive polling shows key opportunity for Labour on the economy
The New Statesman | 17 December 2021
Chuck Todd Says Joe Biden’s Dismal Approval Ratings ‘Not His Fault’
Newsweek | 13 December 2021
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Our Research on Social Media
Top 5 Tweets This Week
- New Largest Labour lead that we’ve recorded. (20 Dec): (see full tweet)
- New lowest Net Approval Rating we have recorded for Johnson. (20 Dec): (see full tweet)
- For which OTHER party could current Labour voters see themselves voting? (23 Dec): (see full tweet)
- Home Secretary Priti Patel Approval Rating (20 Dec): (see full tweet)
- New largest lead for Sunak over Johnson for better PM. (20 Dec): (see full tweet)