Labour can turn apathy into enthusiasm by talking up its popular policies

  • Insight
  • 27 October 2023

by Luke Tryl

Our new research into the public's perception of Keir Starmer and the Labour Party shows no great enthusiasm by either, despite Labour's notable poll leads and by-election wins. By talking up their popular policies they can show the public what they stand for and turn apathy into enthusiasm.

Over the last few months, there has been something of a mismatch between Labour’s significant lead in by-elections and opinion polls and the less-than-enthusiastic descriptions we hear of the Labour party and its leadership in focus groups. Our latest research explores why even people who intend to vote Labour are often not hugely excited about the prospect of a Labour government, and how Labour can talk up its popular policies more if it wants to turn this apathy into enthusiasm.

A big part of the problem is that over half of Britons don’t know what Keir Starmer stands for, and are even less clear about Rachel Reeves.

While Labour enjoys a big poll lead, and is winning by-elections across the board, there is no doubt that this is driven by dislike of the Tories rather than enthusiasm for Labour - when asked why Labour voters are voting Labour their top reason is to get the Tories out - with 48% of those currently intending on voting Labour selecting this option. 

This is reflected when we ask the public what they think about Starmer. Asked to choose from a list of words to describe him, more people pick “Don’t know enough to say '' than any other option. Of those that do choose a word, they are more likely to say that he is intelligent, but also boring, weak and indecisive. This is matched in our focus groups where people are frustrated they haven't heard what Starmer will do other than oppose.

While Starmer doesn’t get a glowing review from the public, the words used to describe Rishi Sunak are much more negative, with hardly any positive words rising to the top. As such, the public’s mood on Starmer can be summed up by a quote from a focus group last week, “Sod it, might as well give him a try, because he can’t be any worse”.

Talking up Labour’s already popular plans could help build a positive vision to make voters enthusiastic about a Labour government. One promising example of this is Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan, which is widely popular but few voters know about it.

That popularity of Labour's green policies means there are real dangers to watering them down further with an election-determining chunk of Labour voters saying that they would consider (33%), or definitely switch to another party (8%) if Labour watered down its climate plans. Voters already describe Starmer as “weak”, and u-turning on these policies could reinforce that sentiment.

In an environment where Starmer beats Sunak on most measures of public perception, the two leaders perform remarkably similarly (albeit with slight leads for Starmer) on questions about the two leaders’ commitment to their policies. This is an area where Starmer will need to meaningfully differentiate himself from Sunak if he is to convince the public that a Labour government will provide a change from what they describe as our country’s broken politics.

You can read more about this research in Labour List.