2023 party conferences fail to significantly shift public opinion dials

Patrick EnglishDirector of Political Analytics
October 19, 2023, 9:25 AM GMT+0

Post-conference data suggests little movement in terms of voting intention, party competency, and leadership ratings

This week, ahead of two high profile parliamentary by-election contests, we take a look at how the attitudes to Labour and the Conservatives have and have not changed since party conference season. Has there been a notable ‘party conference’ effect, or are the public largely exactly where they were before these political set piece events?

The answer is largely: no.

The first important thing to note is that the average voter is not very engaged with the ins and outs of party conference season. In 2018, when we asked the public how much attention they pay to what is being said at party political conferences, just 3% said they pay “a lot of attention”, while ten times as many (30%) said they pay “no at attention at all” (19% said they pay “a fair amount of attention”, while 42% said they pay “not much attention”).

Perhaps reflecting this, despite the widely agreed feeling that Labour had a good conference (and that Starmer made a strong leader’s speech), while the Conservatives struggled to contain announcements and discipline, there was very little in terms of movement on vote intention post-party conference season.

Before the Conservatives headed to Manchester, our headline vote intention figures on 26-27 September were 24% for the Conservatives and 45% for Labour. Last week, after the close of play at Labour’s event, our figures read 24% for the Conservatives and 47% for Labour.

There was, however, some movement on some metrics specifically related to Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak as prospective national leaders.

Most notably, immediately after Starmer’s conference speech, YouGov polling for The Times suggested a notable increase in the number of Britons who believe that Keir Starmer has a clear vision for what he wants to do in office. When asked if they thought that the Labour leader “does or does not have a clear plan for the country”, 28% said that he does, while 57% said that he did not. That represented a change of +6 and -3 respectively on this metric when we asked just prior to Labour conference.

Elsewhere, there was a notable change in our ‘best prime minister’ tracker. On this measurement, while Starmer remained largely static on his pre-conference season figure (32%, +2 from 26-27 September), Rishi Sunak recorded his lowest ever score of 20%, down five points on the week before, and two on the week pre-conferences.

But there was no significant movement in terms of who the public think would make the ‘best Chancellor of the Exchequer’. Here, Rachel Reeves scored much the same versus her pre-conference baseline (19%, +2 from mid-September), while Jeremy Hunt's score also remained similar at 17% (+2).

Further, our latest round of tracking data on public perceptions of party competencies on various issues saw very little movement.

Each month, we check in with the public regarding their opinion on which prospective government would ‘best handle’ a wide range of policy areas: a Labour government led by Keir Starmer, or a Conservative government led by Rishi Sunak.

Compared to September’s data (collected between the 17th and 18th of that month), our October measurements saw no significant change in public perceptions as to who would best handle what are likely to be key issues at the next general election such as “improving standards of living for people like you” (17pt Labour lead, -1 versus September), and “keeping prices down” (11pt Labour lead, also -1 versus September).

There was a somewhat notable movement in terms of handling the economy, where we saw Labour recover their four-point lead over the Conservatives this month, which had disappeared in September.

Currently, 28% of the public believe “a Labour government led by Keir Starmer” would be better at handling the economy (+3 versus September), while 24% believe “a Conservative government led by Rishi Sunak” would do better (-1). Importantly, 29% believe neither would do better than the other in terms of managing the economy, while 19% told us they don’t know.

As well, there was a similarly sized movement in terms of public perceptions on who would do a better job at “helping people get onto the housing ladder” – a key part of Starmer’s conference speech. Here, the Labour figure rose by three points to 34%, while the Conservatives dropped back a point to 12%.

By and large however, there is little evidence in the polling data to suggest a significant shift in public opinion post-conference season. While some metrics changed in notable ways, the overall picture looks much the same as it has done for the past year – a significant Labour polling lead, underpinned by the Conservatives failing to convince the public that they offer a better alternative on a raft of key policy issues, a struggling party brand, and increasingly poor personal (and competency) ratings for Rishi Sunak.