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How Party Leaders Matter in 2024

Events since Thursday, June 6th and Rishi Sunak’s early departure from Normandy may make it seem obvious that party leaders matter in UK elections; it would likely be hard to persuade many Conservative candidates that they don’t.

Yet academics, who research these kinds of subjects using survey data on thousands of voters, often argue that leaders don’t matter—or don’t matter very much—in British elections. What do they mean? The argument generally goes something like this: once we account for people’s identification with parties, their views on issues, and characteristics such as age and social class, what people think of party leaders adds little additional to our understanding of their vote. Besides, we do not have a presidential system.

It is also true that when Rishi Sunak called the election on May 22nd the Conservatives were a long way behind in the polls. June 6th does not seem to have affected that: they were on 23 percent on May 22nd , and they are on 23 percent on June 10th, according to the BBC’s poll of polls. Moreover, Labour support is in the mid-40s despite Keir Starmer not being a popular leader: Starmer’s net satisfaction ratings are a little better than Neil Kinnock’s before the 1987 and 1992 elections, and Jeremy Corbyn’s in 2017, but about the same as Ed Miliband’s before 2015, all of which were elections Labour lost. Starmer’s net satisfaction ratings are also—it almost goes without saying—much lower than Tony Blair’s were in 1997. Yet Labour looks like it could win 400 seats.

Does all this show that perceptions of party leaders don’t matter? There are at least three reasons to doubt this conclusion. First, what may count more than Keir Starmer’s absolute ratings is the gap—perceptions of Starmer are currently substantially more positive (or less negative) than they are for Rishi Sunak. Second, perceptions of party leaders not only affect voting behaviour directly but also indirectly; for example, perceptions of leaders influence the parties voters identify with, not just the other way round. Third, decades of research on voting behaviour show that most voters do not pore over manifestos, learn where the parties stand, and cast a ballot accordingly.

Rather, most voters rely on informational shortcuts—less complex, more easily acquired pieces of information that allow them to infer which party better represents their interests. Perceptions of party leaders loom large here because leaders tend to have an established political persona and reputation by the time of an election.

This is partly because British election campaigns, along with British politics more generally, has become increasingly leader focused. To an extent, this focus has long been true—figures like Gladstone and Churchill also loomed large in their party’s fortunes in the 19th and mid-20th centuries. But that was before the “leaders’ debates” we first witnessed in 2010, along with the predominant media focus on leaders that has only further presidentialised UK elections: the series of Loughborough studies of national press and television coverage of general elections show that more than half the time a Conservative or Labour politician is quoted during an election, that politician is the party leader, for example.

This is partly because British election campaigns, along with British politics more generally, has become increasingly leader focused. Quote

In addition, newspaper headlines tend to combine leader and policies (examples from the current campaign include, “Feisty Rishi Floors Starmer Over £2000 Tax Rise” from the Daily Express on June 5th, and “Sunak Pins Hopes on NI Cut to Rescue Stricken Tory Campaign” from the i on June 11th).

What are the attributes of leaders that voters care about? This is somewhat affected by context, but competence, trustworthiness and responsiveness seem to matter more to voters than attributes such as knowledge. While election campaigns have the capacity to change these perceptions—the starkest example from recent election history being Theresa May’s in 2017, in which her message of strength and stability was undermined by her quick reversal on the “dementia tax”—more typically campaigns serve to reinforce perceptions that are already baked in.

So Sunak’s D-Day problems are likely to have strengthened the beliefs of those already inclined to see him as weak and out-out-touch, just as Starmer’s problems with Diane Abbott a week earlier are likely to have reinforced the beliefs of those who already thought he was untrustworthy. But even this is perhaps too dismissive of the importance of such perceptions during a campaign: Sunak’s D-Day error, in particular, makes it more difficult for him to change minds about him, and therefore to change votes.

Thus, when the Labour Party repeatedly associates Sunak with “weakness” and “chaos”, and the Conservative Party repeatedly says that Keir Starmer has neither conviction nor a plan, it is not a futile exercise: leaders matter in UK elections, even when they are not necessarily changing minds.

Stevens

Professor Dan Stevens is a Professor of Politics at the University of Exeter.

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