Politics in review

by Keiran Pedley

The Conservatives and Labour are moving in opposite directions in the polls – but will it last?

Looking back at a truly unforgettable 2020, we are reminded that if a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity. Having won a resounding victory at the 2019 General Election and having led Labour by 17 points back in February, the Conservatives now trail by 5 points. Of course, the story here is complicated. Yet it’s clear that Britain faces a very different political environment in 2021 than the one it faced at the beginning of 2020.

Voting intention: October 2020 versus February 2020

How would you vote if there were an election tomorrow?

Ipsos MORI Political Monitor

c.700-800 British adults 18+ who say that they are at least 9/10 certain to vote, always/usually/it depends vote in General Elections

The Conservatives and the coronavirus

The fate of the Conservatives, once tied so inextricably to Brexit, now feels similarly tied to perceptions of its handling of the pandemic and its aftermath. Fifty-six per cent of Britons say coronavirus is the most important issue facing Britain, with the economy in second place, at 11%. So it stands to reason that how Boris Johnson and his Government are seen to perform on this issue will be critical to their future success.

In March, the Conservatives were 22 points ahead of Labour, with 49% of Britons thinking the Government was handling the coronavirus outbreak ‘well’, and just 35% thinking it was handling it ‘badly’ – giving a positive score of +14. Meanwhile in April, there was enormous goodwill towards the Prime Minister following his own illness, as 51% of Britons said they were favourable towards Boris Johnson and just 31% unfavourable.

Fast forward and things are now very different. By October, some 50% of Britons thought the virus was being handled ‘badly’ by the Government, with just 30% thinking it was being handled ‘well’. This net rating of -20 stands in contrast to numbers witnessed earlier in the year and falling public satisfaction is having real political consequences – as the table below shows. Net satisfaction with how the Government is running the country overall has fallen to -31. Furthermore, having scored a net favourability rating of +20 in April, Johnson’s ratings have since tumbled, falling to -19 in November.

NHS coronavirus message in empty high street
handing of virus
job satisfaction
(Net well/badly) (Net satisfied/dissatisfied) Con lead
March +14 +7 +22
June -4 -11 +5
August +2 -4 +8
October -20 -31 -5
Government handing of virus
(Net well/badly)
March +14
June -4
August +2
October -20
Government job satisfaction
(Net satisfied/dissatisfied)
March +7
June -11
August -4
October -31
Voting intention
Con lead
March +22
June +5
August +8
October -5

Starmer’s own personal satisfaction ratings with the public began well

Starmer and the Labour brand

Clearly the biggest event of the year for the Labour party was Keir Starmer taking over as leader. Early polls looked encouraging and his impact in public opinion terms was immediate. The proportion of Britons unfavourable towards the Labour Party fell from 52% in March, before Starmer took over, to 40% immediately after. Starmer’s own personal satisfaction ratings with the public also began extremely well. His first net satisfaction rating as leader stood at +31 in June, a number that has never been beaten in our series by a Leader of the Opposition. In fact, it has only been matched once, by Tony Blair.

Satisfaction with Leader of the Opposition (1979-2020)

How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the way… is doing his job as leader of the… Party?


 % highest net scores achieved

Data collected prior to February 2008 was collected via face-to-face methodology; data collected from February 2008 was via telephone

Ipsos MORI Political Monitor

c.1,000 British adults each month

Downing Street facade

Did you

Keir Starmer matches the highest ever opposition leader satisfaction ratings, equal to Tony Blair (=31)

We have also witnessed the Labour party’s brand image improve too. In October, Labour was seen as less ‘extreme’ (down 30 percentage points), less ‘divided’ (down 23 percentage points) and more ‘fit to govern’ (up 6 percentage points) than it was in 2019. Couple these shifts with some negative movement on the Conservative side and we now see Labour lead the Conservatives for attributes such as ‘understands the problems facing Britain’ (17 percentage points ahead), ‘concerned about people in real need in Britain’ (34 percentage points ahead) and ‘looks after the interests of people like me’ (12 percentage points ahead). Such measures are not predictive of any future General Election result, but they do give the opposition something to build on.


Looking ahead – an uncertain future

Perhaps we will see these trends continue into 2021 if Starmer continues to make progress in improving perceptions of the Labour party and the Conservatives continue to struggle with public perceptions of how they are handling the pandemic, but to assume the direction of travel is fixed would be a mistake.

At the time of writing, it remains to be seen if Labour’s lead in the polls is durable or temporary. Regardless, despite Starmer’s successes in 2020, it would be foolish to underestimate the task Labour faces to form a government after the next General Election. The party would need an enormous swing in its favour just to form a minority government backed by the SNP – a majority government appears almost unfathomable. Meanwhile, the Conservatives still lead on being seen as the party with the best policies for managing the economy (+18), handling Britain’s future relationship with the EU (+9) and handling the pandemic (+7). So as someone once said, it’s a case of ‘a lot done, a lot left to do’ for Labour, despite the progress made, and there are no guarantees of success.

It’s a case of ‘a lot done, a lot left to do’ for Labour

Best party on key issues: October 2020

Which party do you think has the best policies on… the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, or some other party?

Ipsos MORI Political Monitor 

1,007 British adults 18+, 22-28 October 2020

Meanwhile, the final chapters on how the Conservatives are seen to handle the pandemic are yet to be written. Whilst we have clearly seen falling public satisfaction throughout 2020, hurting both Johnson’s and the Conservative party’s ratings, it is not unreasonable to think that their position might improve should Britain face a more positive outlook come the spring. This is not to overlook the obvious challenges the Government faces but merely to point out that poll ratings that go down, do not have to stay down (and there are obvious reasons why they may not in this case).

All things being considered, perhaps a useful way to summarise British politics as we approach 2021 is that it’s like being inside a recently shaken snow globe. The twin events of the pandemic and Starmer replacing Corbyn have shaken up British politics in 2020 and done so in unpredictable ways. Where we end up in the coming months and years is yet to be settled.

Keiran Pedley

Keiran Pedley

Director of Politics