BMG regularly tracks public satisfaction scores for the leaders of both the Conservative and Labour party. In this article Michael Turner examines BMG’s polling data to see how public perception of these two political foes has changed since Brexit.
A Paradigm Shift
Since the EU Referendum in June 2016, it is clear that there has been a major transition in the way that the public perceive the leaders of Britain’s two main political parties. This time last year Theresa May was riding-high, with satisfaction scores well into the net-positive. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn was at the nadir of his public approval; why wouldn’t you call an election you might ask?
I guess we all know the answer to that question now, but the speed and scale of the transition has been nothing short of epic. As the chart below illustrates, in the space of 6-weeks May’s public approval collapsed from a positive and respectable score, to a strongly negative one.
People changed their mind about the Prime Minister in a way that had not been seen at a General Election before. Until 2017, psephologists and pollsters tended to believe that campaigns made little difference to the final outcome, in part because they felt people had already made up their minds about leaders. How wrong we were.
Since the General Election Theresa May has recorded consistent and substantial net-negative satisfaction scores. Interestingly, Corbyn’s journey hasn’t been the exact mirror of May’s misfortune. Yes, the Leader of the Opposition had his very own ‘polling bounce’, recording net-positive scores briefly after the election. But the ‘Corbyn bounce’ hasn’t sustained itself, and he now appears to have found his level, slightly above the Prime Minister in single-digit negative scores.
The data presented in the chart below illustrates how the election was the catalyst for a paradigm shift in British politics. It is often said that people can make up their minds about someone after spending just a few seconds with them. This was clearly one occasion where those minds were undone.
Segments of the public changed their view about the leaders in a way that has altered the nature of our political debate for the last 12 months. Just a year ago, as the data supports, May was seen as a winner, who dominated her opposition, certain to lead the country for a decade. Corbyn on the other hand was in the doldrums, struggling to find a way to connect with the public.
Roll forward twelve months and Corbyn is the bookie’s favourite to be our next Prime Minster.
May has lost core support
Examining the data in more detail reveals an interesting facet of the results that run counter to the popular narrative on the May/Corbyn transition over the last 12 months. This time last year Theresa May was very popular with older, skilled, non-degree educated, homeowning Brexit-voters. Although she recorded net-positive scores for most groups at the time, these were her biggest fans, with significant majority support in all groups.
However, one year on, it is these groups that have seen the largest shifts away from May. The older, Leave-voting ‘precariat’, the vast majority of whom were positive about May’s performance in early 2017, are now on-balance reporting net-negative scores for the Prime Minister.
In February last year the vast majority of those aged 55-64 and 65-74 said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with May’s performance, today most people within these age groups say that they are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.
May’s net satisfaction score has collapsed by between forty and fifty points for those aged 55+. Among Leave voters it has dropped by forty-five points and by a similar proportion among those who own their home outright (44 points).
Although May’s decline in popularity has been across all groups, it’s clear that among her core supporters in February 2017, segments of society that the Conservatives may have once considered a great source of electoral strength, they now on-balance tend to be dissatisfied with May.
It is perhaps worth reminding readers that these results are markedly above May’s lowest-point, which was November last year (-28), so it is conceivable that these falls may have been even larger at that time.
Corbyn has made considerable gains
By contrast, this time last year many of May’s core supporters, outlined above, were reporting strongly negative scores for Corbyn, like nearly all groups in fact. However, views on Corbyn have softened since, with some groups changing their opinions substantially.
As the chart below shows, Remain voters are now, on-balance, satisfied with Corbyn’s performance, as are those aged 18 to 34. Among those who live in rented accommodation, net-satisfaction has increased by between nine and twenty-five-points, depending on whether you live in social/council housing or rent from a private landlord.
Among Leave voters there has been a not insignificant increase of thirteen points, and among those aged 45+ there has been an increase in net-satisfaction by between sixteen and twenty-six points.
The demographic imprint of where Corbyn appears to have changed minds is interesting. A tad reminiscent of the target audience for May’s first downing street speech. Older voters, skilled and non-degree educated, renters, have all shifted away from May, and towards Corbyn. Some of May’s biggest losses, have been Corbyn’s biggest gains.
Since November May has been closing the gap
Since November, the results show that Theresa May has steadily closed her popularity gap to Corbyn, from a twenty-three-point deficit on net-satisfaction, to just eight points. Corbyn on the other hand, has remained broadly at the same level since September. All things being equal, it’s not inconceivable that their net-scores will be similar in the near future.
At first glance, the results suggest that Labour’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ on the issue of Brexit may have played a factor in shifting the political narrative. The data above shows that Corbyn’s popularity among younger, degree educated Remain voters was mostly ‘priced-in’ before the 2017 General Election. It is the baby-boomers that have actually made an impact for Corbyn, and as long as they believe that he will deliver on exiting the EU, and keeps making the right noises on public service investment, they are probably willing to give him a pass.
While May has been tied-up negotiating Brexit, Corbyn has been free to wax-lyrical about NHS investment, housing and education. We can’t be too quick to forget that although many of the over fifty-fives tend to hold more socially conservative views on issues such as national defence and immigration, many of which could be considered at-odds culturally with parts of the Labour party, they are also very interested in day-to-day domestic policy.
It is foreseeable then, that if May’s government can free up the space to progress a domestic policy agenda, that appeals to the audience of her first Downing Street speech, she may be able to close the gap further.
Methodology, fieldwork dates, and a full breakdown of these results can be found here.
For a more detailed breakdown of results from this poll, or any other results from our polling series, please get in touch by email or phone.
0121 333 6006
Michael Turner – Research Director & Head of Polling – BMG Research