When Emily Thornberry threw an early hat into what is likely to become a crowded Labour leadership ring she did so with a vow to step down if it ever became clear, from the polls and her colleagues, that she couldn’t win a future election as a sign of her loyalty to the party.
This was a fairly obvious shot at Jeremy Corbyn who went into the 2019 GE as the with the worst ratings of any major party leader of the last 45 years but will also likely be a line she uses as a challenge to other leadership hopefuls.
She (sensibly) didn’t specify what polling numbers would signal the need for a new leader so I decided to have a helpful poke about to see if we could come up with a point of no return.
(This post is going to deal solely with leadership approval ratings, I may follow up with VI ratings in the future but that’s a rather larger task).
The first thing to do was to try and establish a baseline for electoral performance, how unpopular could you be but still win.
The lowest rating by a LotO who went on to become Prime Minister is -22 by David Cameron (in September 2007) before he recovered into positive territory over the next year. So, we can take that as our first bottom point.
Next, we can take a look at the ratings of every winning party leader:
Which gives us the lowest winning score of -25 by Tony Blair in 2005. This is also the only election where the winning leader had a lower approval rating than the losing leader, Michael Howard rating at -10. It should be noted that Howard only had 72% of respondents expressing an opinion, which is a particularly low score (next lowest is 79% and the average is in the mid-80s).
To see if there’s any more margin for an unpopular LotO victory here’s the ratings of all PMs at election time.
Which gives us a new low score to beat with -27 for John Major in 1997. So, we can safely say that victory is still possible with a net rating in the mid negative 20s.
But these are the scores at election time, which usually come at the end of some pretty strong improvements in LotO ratings. So, if Emily Thornberry finds herself below that line she shouldn’t be quite ready to let Jess Phillips ‘knife her in the front’.
There’s no exact way to identify what level of recovery is impossible, so I’m falling back on the cheap crutch of history to show what is at least certainly possible. With that in mind I’ve plotted the net ratings recorded by LotOs against the peak rating they achieved after that date. So, in the top right we have David Cameron hitting -22 before climbing to +23, while in the bottom left, we have Corbyn’s -60 and the -44 he recovered to.
We see Corbyn’s staggering 2017 rise from -41 in March 2017 to -1 in July (the last result before the 2017 GE had him at -11). It overshadows what was also a very impressive recovery by Ed Miliband who went from -44 in November of 2014 to -19 at the May 2015GE.
That sizable Mili-surgence is also the lowest score to still show a recovery back past the Major line. The left of him is occupied only by Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn. Foot first dipped under that mark by hitting -46 in November of 1981 (before sliding further down) while Corbyn smashed through it in February of 2019 with -55.
Corbyn did manage to gain VI polling leads through the spring of 2019 when May’s popularity nosedived (into -40s in personal ratings and the 20s in VI ratings) from failed Brexit deals, but when she was replaced by Boris Johnson (whose personal ratings were merely quite bad rather than historically awful) the Conservative scores rose and Labour were left behind. Theresa may have taken Jeremy’s chance of victory with her as she left.
One last little note, the only leader listed here not to fight a general election was Iain Duncan-Smith. He was invited to step down in the traditional Conservative way when his personal ratings in the -20s and the party was polling in the low-to-mid 30s, despite reasonable local election gains.
Since WWII the Labour party has never sacked a leader before fighting an election.
The only Labour leaders since WWI to not fight an election where John Smith who died as leader in 1994, and George Lansbury who stepped down shortly before the 1935 election due to his pacifism causing a rift between him and the wider party.
So, the next Labour leader is probably safe until the next election whatever their score, and comebacks can come from further back than you might expect.
Tomas Forsey is a longstanding PBer who posts on PB as Corporeal and tweets as PBcorporeal