When voters in England head to the polls on 6 May to vote for councillors, mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners, and, in Hartlepool, a new MP, it will provide the first indication of how the nation feels politically since the 2019 general election, almost 18 months ago.Local elections usually take place every year, and provide some idea of the nation’s political landscape in-between major elections, however the 2020 local elections were postponed due to Covid, with those seats up for grabs this time around.
While 18 months is always a long-time in politics, the time since that general election has seen one of the main parties elect a new leader and strike out in a new direction, as well as a global pandemic and more political scandals than most of us can remember.
Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer will both be eagerly anticipating the results after polling day, to get a sense - for the first time in the post-pandemic world - of how they and their parties are faring.
What do people think of the main parties?
According to Politico’s national poll of polls, the Conservatives have a 5-point lead over Labour, with the smaller parties all lagging way behind on single-figures.
The much-predicted vaccine bounce has materialised to some extent for the government, with polling for the Conservatives beginning to pick up mid-December and rising steadily since, from around 39 per cent to 41 per cent.
This seems to have come directly to Labour’s detriment, as polling for the opposition has dropped from almost level with Tories in December, on 38 per cent, to now around 36 per cent.
The causes of this are up for debate, though some commentators have begun to question whether Starmer has been able to connect with the electorate and give any indication of his world-view.
Some of this decline in Labour’s support is likely to come from younger members and those on the left of the party feeling increasingly alienated by the party’s leadership, although Starmer will hope that older, more socially-conservative voters who have left the party over the last couple of decades will replaced those lost younger votes.
Perhaps more worrying for Starmer is how seemingly invulnerable the Conservatives are to scandals. Many experts would have expected the many allegations of cronyism over the last few months to have damaged the governing party’s poll numbers, though this has not been the case.
What do people think of the party leaders?
Starmer’s role in Labour’s diminishing fortunes seems to be fairly clear judging by his personal approval ratings, which have dropped month-on-month since November, according to YouGov.
By mid-April, just 26 per cent of respondents felt Starmer was doing a good job as leader, down from a peak of 48 per cent last August.
At the same time, his disapproval rating, which sat at just 26 per cent in August, has now risen to 50 per cent – worryingly for Starmer, it sits at 44 per cent among Labour voters.
The fluctuations in Starmer’s approval ratings will be in part because he is a relatively new figure in politics, having only become an MP in 2015 and maintaining a relatively low-profile as shadow Brexit secretary under Jeremy Corbyn.
While 44 per cent of respondents said they didn’t know if Starmer was doing a good or bad job back in May 2020, just after he’d taken on the leadership, only 23 per cent now feel the same.
While many people still being undecided on Starmer a year into his leadership may seem like a problem, it could actually offer some cause for optimism. While a vast majority of voters have made their minds up one way or another on Johnson, with only 7 per cent answering ‘don’t know’, Starmer can still hope to win over a significant slice of the electorate.
The concern among Starmer’s team will be that, in this initial window when new political leaders have an opportunity to introduce themselves to the electorate and shape how they’re seen long-term, he has failed to make a strong impression and his trend is now a downward one.
Johnson’s reputation for being something of a Teflon-politician seems to hold up when looking at his approval ratings. While he is not overwhelmingly popular, and his approval ratings dip considerably among certain demographics – particularly young people – his core support seems almost immovable.
This may be due to the face Johnson has maintained a high profile in British politics for some time, from his time as London mayor to the Brexit campaign and high-ranking cabinet positions prior to assuming the leadership.
His most recent approval ratings are fairly tight, with 46 per cent of respondents saying he’s doing well, and the same number saying he’s doing badly – which is relatively impressive, given the events of the last year or so.
It’s true to say that many incumbent governments and leaders around the world have seen their approval ratings bolstered during the pandemic, as people become more reliant on their governments, however in some places where the handling of the pandemic has been particularly bad, the opposite has been the case.