UK opposition leader Keir Starmer still faces a huge challenge to win over public opinion, according to a survey of more than 2,000 people which found him lagging behind prime minister Boris Johnson on several attributes.
Since taking over as Labour leader in April, Sir Keir has taken his party to its highest projected national vote share in two years, as Mr Johnson’s Conservatives have come under fire for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the poll carried out by the research and strategy group Britain Thinks shows that, on the critical question of who would make the best prime minister, Sir Keir scored just 21 per cent compared to Mr Johnson’s 31 per cent.
On the question of whether each party leader would “do what he believes to be right, even when those decisions are unpopular” Mr Johnson received 33 per cent support against just 12 per cent for Sir Keir.
More of those surveyed thought Mr Johnson had an economic plan for recovery after the pandemic, that he would fulfil his promises, that he was good under pressure, would unite the country, would perform well on the international stage and would take the right decisions for national security — at least when compared to his main rival.
Only in a couple of areas did Sir Keir outperform Mr Johnson: 27 per cent thought he would “put working people first” against 17 per cent for Mr Johnson. He was also a point ahead on protecting public services, at 27 to 26 per cent.
Deborah Mattinson, founder of Britain Thinks, said Sir Keir was seen as “more effective a leader overall” — in his current job — with a mean score of 5.17 out of 10 against Mr Johnson’s 4.41.
But she added that this did not tell the whole story. “Our poll delves into far greater detail so we can see the specific challenges ahead of Sir Keir on issues like the economy and national security. Taken with the focus groups it also reveals how little people currently know about him, other than preferring him to his predecessor.”
The extent to which Sir Keir, who took over from Jeremy Corbyn, is still a largely unknown quantity in British politics was revealed at a focus group held by Britain Thinks last week via Zoom with voters in Northumberland, in England’s north-east.
Many of the seven people at the Northumberland event had no view on Sir Keir, with Sarah — a supermarket worker — saying “I haven’t heard much about him, [and I] don’t really have an opinion”. The organisers of the focus group did not disclose the surnames of those taking part to protect their identities.
Matthew, a chef, said the new leader had “turned my head” because he was more credible than his predecessor. “Corbyn was far too leftwing, this guy relates more. If he’s in the position [of leader at the election], you wouldn’t see areas like Blyth voting Conservative,” he said.
But Mark said Sir Keir was “all talk” and spent too much time sniping at the government from the sidelines. “If Boris says black he says white. It never progresses anything,” he said.
While Boris Johnson attracted sympathy — finding himself leader at a time of national crisis — there was also impatience at his handling of the pandemic.
One participant said she liked Mr Johnson but now felt “a bit sorry for him” because he was out of his depth. “My thinking is he doesn’t make all of the decisions.”
Asked to give advice to the two leaders, the group said Mr Johnson should speak clearly, get a tailor, stop relying on advisers and “be more articulate”. They advise Sir Keir to “help find a way forward, don’t just point out problems” and to “not hide behind other’s misfortunes”.