Do criticisms of Sunak and Starmer resonate with the public? 

 

 

 

5th June 2024

By Ruby Cooper

How the public perceive Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will be a key factor in determining the success of their parties come polling day. For this reason, much of the major parties’ campaigns have focused on discrediting their opposition’s leader – but do these lines of attack resonate with the public? Results from our recent poll, commissioned by the Mail on Sunday, suggest that both parties are successfully targeting their opponents’ weakest spots.

Overall, the outlook for Rishi Sunak is bleak. Voters are far more likely to associate Sunak with negative characteristics compared to Keir Starmer. The public most associate Sunak with being untrustworthy (41%), self-interested (33%), and lacking in real conviction (25%). In comparison, the top three characteristics Starmer is associated with are a real desire for change (28%), determination (22%), and being untrustworthy (22%). An overview of these results tells the same story as we see in our leadership tracker – in relative terms, Starmer is far more popular than Sunak. However, public opinion is split over Starmer in absolute terms.

In this same poll, we asked the public to choose which of two statements best describes each of the leaders. The overarching picture is the same – the public are more likely to associate Starmer with positive characteristics, and more likely to associate Sunak with negative characteristics. Within this difficult outlook, does the Conservative Party’s messaging resonate amongst the public?

Keir Starmer is “Captain Flip Flop”

The idea that Keir Starmer changes his mind and flip flops is supported by a plurality (41%) of voters, whilst a third (33%) believe instead that he sticks to the decisions he has made.

“Keir Starmer has no plans for the future.”

The attack line that Starmer has no plans for the future was often repeated in last night’s debate, with Sunak criticising Starmer’s proclivity to talk about the past. On this, the public are split – just under two fifths (39%) think Starmer has no real vision for the UK’s future, whilst the same amount (39%) believe the opposite, that he does have a clear vision.

“If Keir Starmer doesn’t stand for anything, how can he stand up for Britain?”

While much of the Conservatives’ messaging about Keir Starmer is rooted in the idea that he has no principles, public opinion is divided – a narrow plurality (40%) believe he does have a clear idea of what he believes in, whilst only slightly fewer (38%) believe he does not.

“You don’t know what he stands for. Neither does he.”

It is worth noting that for many of these questions about Keir Starmer, a substantial proportion of respondents are unsure – and for every question, this proportion outnumbers those who said the same about Sunak. This is perhaps unsurprising given any Prime Minister is likely to have a higher public profile than the equivalent Leader of the Opposition.

In putting forward criticisms of his opponent, Sunak faces an issue – in every case, he is more likely to be viewed negatively than Starmer. Half (50%) think that Sunak changes his mind and flip flops, the same amount (51%) think he has no real vision for the future, and just a third (35%) think he has a clear idea of what he believes in. Whilst Sunak is therefore opening himself up to the charge of hypocrisy, this may be the best he can do – these three characteristics show the smallest gaps in opinion between the two party leaders, as well as the highest level of negative sentiment towards Starmer.

What about the Labour Party’s messaging?

Rishi Sunak is “out of touch”.

Labour’s oft-repeated critique of Sunak as out of touch with the British people does strongly resonate with the public – two-thirds (65%) see him as out of touch with ordinary people, more than three times the proportion who say he can understand the problems of ordinary people (20%).

“Change.”

The one word at the heart of Labour’s campaign draws a contrast with Sunak. A large majority (68%) of the public think Sunak represents more of the same, whilst just 13% think he represents a real change.

On these topics, Starmer is viewed in a far more positive light – a plurality (45%) believe he can understand the problems of ordinary people, and over a third (36%) believe he represents a real change. In fact, these are the characteristics on which the public’s perceptions of the two leaders are the most contrasting, where Sunak is the weakest, and, therefore, where Starmer is strongest.

Whilst these results do show a relationship between the major parties’ strategies and public opinion, the direction of causality is not clear. It may be that the parties’ attacks on the leaders of the opposition have impacted public opinion. Alternatively, the parties themselves may have studied the public’s pre-existing perceptions of party leaders, and targeted their criticisms at their oppositions’ weakest areas. Most likely, it is a mix of both, but these results reveal the marked efficiency of both parties’ strategies, targeting the weakest points of the opposition’s leader.

Within the overall negative outlook for Rishi Sunak, continuing to target Starmer’s weakest attributes is his best chance at regaining support, and closing the gap in approval between the two. In contrast, the Labour Party’s strategy is to target areas with the greatest difference between the two leaders, where Starmer’s relative popularity is clearest.

Deltapoll interviewed 1,517 adults in Great Britain online between 23rd to 25th May 2024. The data have been weighted to be representative of the British adult population as a whole. Full results are available here. This poll was commissioned by the Mail on Sunday.

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Ruby CooperAuthor: Ruby Cooper