Good Thursday Afternoon,

It’s time to take a look at the polls! In this week’s issue of Magnified, we analyse the state of the polls after the first week of the General Election campaign and ask what scope there is for the Conservatives to narrow the polls between now and 4 July.

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Westminster Insights

Westminster Voting Intention (25-27 May):

Labour 46% (+1)
Conservative 23% (–)
Reform UK 13% (+1)
Liberal Democrat 9% (-1)
Green 5% (–)
Scottish National Party 3% (+1)
Other 3% (+2)

Changes +/- 19 May

Combined Net Approval Ratings (25-27 May):

Keir Starmer: +9% (-5)
Rishi Sunak: -19% (-3)

Changes +/- 19 May

Two weeks ago, in the opening our previous edition of Magnified, we wrote:

“With parliament due to rise next Friday for a week’s long recess for Whitsun, Rishi Sunak and the Conservative hierarchy have much to ponder during their break.”

As it transpired, the Conservative hierarchy (or, at least, Rishi Sunak and the people he listens to the most) had done their pondering.

Sunak emerged into a deluge in Downing Street last Wednesday to shock the country and fire the starting gun on a six-week campaign which will culminate in a General Election on 4 July.

Given the polls at the time showed the Conservatives more than 20% behind Labour, the Prime Minister’s decision to call an early election is, to state the obvious, a massive gamble. 

At the core of that gamble is a belief—or, rather, a hope—on the part of the Prime Minister that the polls will narrow as the campaign unfolds. 

This belief is built upon, first, historical precedent (a conventional belief that “the polls always narrow” in an election campaign) and, second, a hope that two groups of voters will switch their vote to the Conservatives:

1) 2019 Conservative voters who are now undecided 

2) Reform UK voters, many of whom voted Conservative in 2019

Neither of these arguments for a narrowing of the polls are particularly persuasive.

Firstly, when it comes to historical precedent, the governing party trying to squeeze the vote is typically not 20+ points behind in the polls at the start of the campaign. Although they were behind, neither Gordon Brown in 2010, nor David Cameron in 2015, faced such a deficit (the latter being more successful in shifting the polls during the campaign than the former was).

John Major did manage to tighten the polls during the course of the 1997 Election. Having started the campaign an average of 22% down in pre-election polls, the average Labour lead narrowed to 19% in the course of the campaign, before ultimately ending up with Labour finishing 13% ahead on polling day. But that still resulted in a Labour landslide and the Conservatives’ worst performance at a General Election since before the Second World War.

As the example of David Cameron in 2015 shows, the party in power needs to be competitive in the first place in order to stand a chance of successfully squeezing votes

By contrast, Rishi Sunak’s insistence that this election is a presidential-style choice between him and Keir Starmer falls completely flat as an argument to animate wavering voters when the great majority of voters (not to mention the media) do not see it as a contest.

While it is true that much of the public remains uncertain about what policies Keir Starmer stands for, turning the election into a personal contest between Sunak and Starmer seems incredibly misguided when the Prime Minister is himself woefully unpopular and when the public now thinks Starmer would be a better Prime Minister by an historically wide margin of 19 points.

Starmer’s comparatively glowing approval rating and massive lead over Sunak in their head-to-head speaks to another reason to doubt Sunak can recover ground: The lack of fear voters feel about a potential Starmer-led government.

There are two key elements to this: 

1) The completely changed political dynamic in Scotland in this election.

2) Voters’ impressions of Keir Starmer himself.

In 2015, David Cameron skillfully played on the fear of English voters that an Ed Miliband-led government would be beholden to Scottish nationalists (memorably depicting Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket) to make the argument that only the Conservatives could deliver a stable government. Both Theresa May in 2017 and Boris Johnson in 2019 also played on these fears to scare English voters away from voting Labour.

For their part, the SNP could make the argument that, with Labour unlikely to form a government, the only way for Scottish voters to register their disapproval of the Conservative Government in London was to send a strong delegation of SNP MPs to Westminster.

In a vicious cycle, the strength of the SNP in Scotland thus hurt Labour in England in the elections of 2015, 2017, and 2019.

Now, that cycle has been broken. The SNP’s vote share has dropped precipitously while Labour has opened up a 7% lead in Scotland in our Westminster Voting Intention polling.

Consequently, rather than feeling obliged to vote for the SNP to register their opposition to a Conservative UK Government, many Scottish voters can now vote to elect Scottish Labour MPs who can represent Scotland in government, with some perhaps taking seats in cabinet themselves.

The changed dynamic in Scotland has major consequences in England. English voters can now feel safer voting for Labour—or, at least, not voting Conservative—in the knowledge that a Labour Government that includes Scottish nationalists who wish to break up the UK is not on the cards.

The second, vital, dynamic which is different now from the previous three elections is the absence of fear about Keir Starmer himself. 

In 2015 under Ed Miliband, and in 2017 and (particularly) 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn, many Conservative-leaning voters genuinely feared what a Labour administration would bring.

But now, in stark contrast, the fear for the public is not that a Starmer administration will deliver too much radical change, as they feared Corbyn or Miliband might, but that he will not change anything.

In fact, when asked if they would prefer a lot of change or no change under a Labour Government, 70% of voters, including a majority of likely Conservative voters, say they would prefer ‘a lot of change’ under a Labour Government.

Voter’s lack of fear of what a Starmer Government might bring renders the 2015, 2017, and 2019 Conservative tactic of frightening voters with the thought of the alternative a non-factor in this campaign.

What of the 2019 Conservative voters who are now undecided or voting Reform?

There are two problems for the Conservatives with resting their hopes on winning back now undecided voters who backed them in 2019. The first is that there are simply not very many of them left, constituting, as they do, only about a tenth of those who voted Conservative in 2019. And the second, more damaging one, is that most of those voters cannot see themselves voting Conservative this time.

Our latest figures illustrate this problem starkly. Our first Westminster Voting Intention poll since the General Election was called showed 12% of 2019 Conservative voters are now undecided how they will vote on 4 July. But of these, only 37% say they are leaning closest towards voting Conservative.

Nor does a personal appeal from Rishi Sunak seem likely to sway now undecided voters who backed the Conservatives in 2019. 

Only 26% of this group say they approve of Sunak’s job performance as Prime minister, while his net approval with this cohort as a whole is underwater at -6%.

The Conservatives appear in an even worse position to pick up Reform UK voters.

In 2015 and in 2019, supporters of the predecessors of Reform UK (UKIP and the Brexit Party) had a clear reason to switch to the Conservatives: Brexit. 

In 2015, David Cameron successfully squeezed the UKIP vote by promising to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership. 

In 2019, it was Boris Johnson’s clear commitment to ‘Get Brexit Done’ which convinced the Brexit Party to only run in opposition-held seats, leaving the way clear for Conservative MPs in many areas where a Brexit Party challenger might have siphoned away votes. 

By contrast, what do the Conservative Party have to offer Reform voters now? 

They may like the idea of re-introducing national service or increasing the personal tax-free allowance for pensioners. But neither issue is of significant enough importance to Reform voters to switch their vote when many feel “betrayed” (Nigel Farage’s word) by the Conservatives on the most important issue at this election for most of them: Immigration.

Furthermore, hostility to the Conservatives in general, and Sunak in particular, is so strong among Reform UK voters that it is hard to see how the Conservatives can hope to win many of them over. 

58% of likely Reform UK voters disapprove of Rishi Sunak’s job performance as Prime Minister, while only 21% approve. Sunak’s net disapproval rating among likely Reform voters (-37%) is, in fact, only marginally better than it is among likely Labour voters (-42%).

The Conservatives’ social media strategy of equating voting Reform UK with voting Labour, while clearly aimed at scaring Reform voters to switch to the Conservatives, will only deepen the antipathy of Reform’s leadership towards the Conservatives, with Nigel Farage having already stated his view that the Conservatives “have to lose this election.”

In fact, the weakness of the Conservatives’ position with respect to Reform voters offers one plausible reason for why Rishi Sunak called an early election in the first place—in order to prevent Reform from getting organised and rising any further in the polls.

Finally, despite several attempted government policy resets in the last eighteen months, the polls have failed to narrow in the Conservatives favour in the wake of any of them. 

They failed to narrow significantly after Sunak unveiled his ‘Five Priorities’ in January 2023. 

They failed to narrow after he announced his changes to net zero policies in September last year.

They failed to narrow after his party conference speech in October.

And they have failed to narrow after each Autumn and Spring Budget statement.

Having failed to narrow for eighteen months, nothing in the current dynamics of the British electorate or in the sub-headline data in the opinion polls suggests that the polls are going to narrow that much, if at all, in the next five weeks.

R&WS in the Media

Fortnightly we bring you the top stories from the media that have featured our research.

What Policy Do Voters Most Associate With Keir Starmer?
Peston ITV| 29 May 2024

First Polls Since Sunak Called UK Election Show No Clear Change
Bloomberg | 28 May 2024

EXCLUSIVE: The election mountain Rishi must climb on July 4: Shock poll shows Keir Starmer is more trusted to handle Channel boats, taxes and the economy
Daily Mail | 28 May 2024

Now it’s personal: Poll shows voters like and trust Keir Starmer more than Rishi Sunak
The Independent | 28 May 2024

New Yorkers Blame Migrants for City’s Crime Rate
Newsweek | 20 May 2024

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