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Who do the voters trust on the biggest issues?

Updated: Apr 18, 2022

"Performance on key issues could be vital in making the winner and loser of the next election."

In the 2019 election, the Conservative Party was able to convince voters that they were the most competent party on the issues voters stated to be the most pressing ones facing the country. Since the last general election, the pandemic has shifted the voters’ thoughts more on to other issues, such as public health, the NHS, and the economy (see figure 1). Further, the recent coverage of border crossings from Calais has brought the divisive issue of immigration and asylum seekers right back into being one of the top three issues being debated. On top of this, the environment has also risen in the electorate’s agenda during specific moments within the last year, most probably due to the coverage and importance of the latest climate summit. Therefore, although Brexit still partially occupies voters’ thoughts it does not dominate the political landscape as it once did. Consequently, this gives the potential for voters to reassess how the parties perform on their immediate concerns, and as a result, may have changed how competent the parties are judged to be. This is important as this could affect how likely certain groups of voters are to vote for the two main parties, and therefore might have the capacity to shape the next general election result. This blog outlines how different groups of voters assess the parties’ performance on the biggest issues of the day and the impact such perceptions might have upon the two main parties’ election prospects.

Figure 1 - Voters stated most pressing concern - Polls - YouGov, Survation.

Managing public health and the pandemic:

According to figure one, public health and managing the pandemic has consistently been at the top of the voters’ agenda since the initiation of the first lockdown. The problem with this issue being top of the agenda is that the specifics of how to handle a pandemic has not needed to be covered by polling organisations before, meaning data is limited for such a question. One question that partly taps into this issue is when voters are prompted to state which party they feel is best to run the NHS. However, historically this is the one question Labour has always been able to rely upon as it has always shown Labour to be perceived as more able to manage health services than the Conservative Party.

YouGov has tracked how voters feel the pandemic has been handled. The first recording of responses to this question in September 2020 showed that only 40% of voters approved of the government’s response. This response dropped to just over 25% during the final lockdown and picked up after the successful vaccine rollout, to back up to around 40%. The figure currently stands around 35-40% of voters approving of the government’s response to the covid19 outbreak. The voters who have most stuck by the government’s response has been 2019 Conservative voters, with voters from other parties generally heavily disapproving of the government’s response. Whilst this is interesting, there are limitations in telling us which party the voters would trust more on the issue of the pandemic and public health. Figure two shows that in terms of the leadership the two parties offer, on average voters trust Johnson more in managing a pandemic than Starmer. This might be because in times of crisis people often revert to national leaders to address crises, it also may be because many voters still have severe reservations over the Labour Party’s ability to handle tough issues. Either way, there is no evidence that government incompetence in handling the pandemic has resulted in greater support for a Labour government. Moreover, figure two shows that Labour still struggles most amongst the very groups they need to win over in regards to assessments in the parties’ to handle the biggest issues of the day. Figure two demonstrates that older voters, defined as 55 and above, in particular, do not trust Labour to manage the toughest issue of the day, again highlighting that the change issue saliency may have not benefitted Labour.

Figure 2 - Party leader most Able to handle pandemic - RedField Wilton polling

The Economy:

As the pandemic has caused economic decline and inflation increases, the issue of the economy has also increased in saliency. Since 2007, Labour has struggled to beat the Tories on the issue of the economy. Labour has not been as trusted to manage the economy as the Conservatives have since Labour was in government during the last financial crisis. However, the pandemic has created a new economic problem, one of stagnating economies with rising inflation. Therefore, it is possible that now the Tories are in government during tough economic times their lead on the economy may go. Figure three demonstrates that Labour is still behind the Conservative Party in regards to being the better party to manage the economy, although it should be noted that the Tories’ lead has narrowed in the last year as inflation has increased. The worrying trend for Labour is that they are further behind the Tories amongst the voters they need to win back. Figure three shows that Labour is further behind with voters in working-class groups, C2DE voters. Further research showed that this was also the case for Leave and younger voting groups. Therefore, although tough economic times lay ahead this might not necessarily translate into more support for Labour at the expense of the governing party. As a result, with regards to the economy, the government is still seen to be the better option than the opposition by many voters.

Figure 3 - Best party to handle economy - by class grouping - polling records.

Immigration/ Asylum:

With the number of channel crossing increasing throughout the last year the debate around immigration and asylum seekers has been reignited. The proportion of the electorate citing this issue as one of their biggest concerns has increased and it is now the third biggest issue in British politics that voters are focusing on. The Conservatives have often had a large lead on this issue over Labour as the last Labour government was deemed to get their migration policy wrong by many voters. Alternatively, with the Tories adopting a tough stance on migrant numbers and border control policy they are often seen as better to handle the issue by voters who have grown concerned about rising migrant numbers. Figure four shows that on average the Conservatives still have a lead over Labour on this issue, but the proportion of voters who state the Conservatives are better than Labour in handling this issue did greatly reduce in the last half of 2021. Notably, Labour is even ahead amongst Remain voters, and was also found to be ahead amongst younger voters and voters in the AB class group. Yet, it should still be noted that figure four shows that Labour is still quite far behind the Tories in being seen to be able to handle the issue of migration amongst Leave supporters. Therefore, although Labour is overall seen to be able to handle the issue better than historically has been the case, it must be noted that amongst the groups Labour needs to win over most they still are quite far behind the Tories. This indicates recent dips in Conservative approval on this issue, possibly due to increased boat crossings might not cause voters to instead place their trust in Labour.

Figure 4 -Best Party to handle immigration and Asylum (Remain vs Leave)

Handling the issue of Brexit and Europe:

Although the issue of Brexit is not as prominent as it has been in recent years it still is prominent enough to be a top-five issue, according to YouGov December 2019 polling. Further, as more transition controls and regulations will be added at the start of 2022 Brexit could become more salient as the impact of Brexit becomes more obvious to the voters. Moreover, continued negotiations with the EU over fishing rights have the potential to cause this issue to flare up again. Therefore, how parties perform on the issue of Brexit might be important to how the voters view the parties in the coming year. On average, the Conservative Party is seen to be more able to handle the issue of Europe and the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Further, figure five shows Labour is very far behind the Conservative Party on Brexit amongst older voters, which was also the case with Leave voters. This again shows that Labour is still struggling to convince the voters they need to win over that they are the most competent party on key issues.

Fig 5 - Best Party to handle Brexit - Age groups compared. Polling organisation data

Labour being behind in being seen as the most able party to deal with key issues amongst voters they need to win over is a problem because these voters appear to heavily prioritise the issues Labour most struggles on. For example, figure six shows that Leave voters prioritised the issue of immigration much more than other voters. Interestingly, this was also the case with older and working-class voters. Therefore, Labour being quite far behind the Tories in being seen as the most able to handle such an issue could mean that they will find it tough to win over these voters in future elections as they will likely to view the Tories are more competent on their most prominent concerns. Therefore, although the gap between the Conservatives and Labour on key issues between Labour and Conservative has been reduced on some key issues in the latter half of 2021, this may not translate into a win for the Labour Party in the last election.

Figure 6 - Voters states most pressing concern - Remain vs Leave voters.


Overall, the blog discovered that the gap in perceived competence between the Labour and Conservative Party closed in the latter part of 2021. Scandals, government gaffs and rising inflation have made it tougher for the government to have a strong lead on key issues, such as managing the pandemic, the economy and Brexit. Moreover, events outside the country have not favoured the government, most notably with increased migrant and refugee crossings. This likely has dented confidence in the government’s ability to handle the migration/asylum issue as it has presented an issue that cannot be addressed quickly. Further, as Labour has improved amongst certain groupings that naturally favour them, such as younger Remain groupings, the gap has narrowed. Yet, before concluding that this trend will allow Labour to win the next election it must be noted that Labour is still far behind on key issues with key voters they need to win back, older working-class leave voting groups. This presents the possibility Labour may not be able to win enough of these voters to form a strong enough voting base that will win them the next election. Therefore, if these key voters continue to be disappointed by the government’s performance on these vital issues Labour may be able to convince them they can do a better job and win their support, but if the government gets their act together and improves in delivering on these key issues than the government can still win the next election despite falling behind in the polls. Therefore, the next general election remains still very much up for grabs for both the two main parties, meaning that their future performance on these key issues such voters care very much about could be vital in making the winner and loser of the next election.

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