Voters tune out when leaders attempt to play with them - GulfToday

Voters tune out when leaders attempt to play with them

Andrew Grice

Political columnist for The Independent.

A woman exits a polling station after casting her vote.

A woman exits a polling station after casting her vote.

It has become a standing joke at Westminster. Keir Starmer bangs on about being “the son of a toolmaker”, while Rishi Sunak constantly reminds us his father was a GP and his mother ran a pharmacy. The rolling of eyes in the Westminster village won’t stop them from repeating their favourite lines many times before the election. Yet a revealing opinion poll shared with me by More in Common shows that their declarations have sailed over the heads of voters. Only 11 per cent of people know Starmer’s father was a toolmaker, while 18 per cent know Sunak’s father was a family doctor. Similarly, Starmer’s repeated references to his “working class” roots have not cut much ice with the public. The biography of him by Tom Baldwin proves beyond doubt that Starmer’s assertion is correct. But only 8 per cent of people (and only 15 per cent of Labour supporters) think the Labour leader had a working-class upbringing.

Nor are voters impressed by Sunak’s pitch that he comes from the hard-working, aspirational middle class: he is seen as upper class, while Starmer is viewed as “upper middle class”. The good news for Starmer is that fewer than one in 10 people believe he inherited his knighthood; almost half correctly say that he earned it through public service. Luke Tryl, More in Common’s UK director, said: “Everyone in Westminster might be sick of hearing that Keir Starmer is the son of a toolmaker and that Rishi Sunak’s dad was a doctor and the family ran a local pharmacy — but the vast majority of the public still has no idea about the backgrounds of the two party leaders. The public’s general cynicism towards politicians is more likely to make them think that both Sunak and Starmer come from more privileged backgrounds.

“This should serve as an important reminder that most people in the country don’t follow the ins and outs of what goes on in Westminster. We may well hear a lot more about pharmacies and toolmakers in the campaign ahead.” Indeed, the backstories of the country’s two best-known politicians will feature as their parties play the man as well as the ball. The Tories love nothing more than branding Starmer a “north London lefty lawyer” who defended terrorists. Senior Tories tell me they are keener than ever to get personal after the local elections highlighted the need to win back voters who have defected to Reform UK. The Tories will also target Angela Rayner, Starmer’s deputy; although she is popular with the wider public, Tory officials believe right-wing Tories and Reform supporters don’t like her. (Interestingly, the Tories don’t spend much time attacking Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor — presumably because Tory voters like her.)

Labour threatens to retaliate by accusing “rich Rishi” of “betting on the misery of working people” as a hedge-fund manager during the 2008 financial crisis. Labour will draw attention to loopholes in Jeremy Hunt’s crackdown on non-dom status to remind voters that Akshata Murty, Sunak’s wife, was previously a non-dom. The biggest danger for Sunak is not that voters view him as rich, but that they perceive him as being out of touch and remote from their daily struggles. Things can only get nastier. But will most voters be aware of such attacks? Some ammunition will be fired not in public statements but below the radar, in targeted social-media advertising. Sometimes, ads are designed to provoke a row in order to magnify the message via free news coverage. But playing dirty can backfire, as Labour discovered after an attack ad accused Sunak of not wanting sexual abusers of children to go to jail. The backlash extended to some Labour MPs.

More in Common’s sobering findings suggest that politicians should worry about the gulf between their finely tuned messages and the voters who are not listening. Will people tune in when the election finally comes? Perhaps, but the biggest obstacle is public cynicism about politicians, and pessimism that things can’t get better. Labour figures worry privately that, although it’s the Tories who have broken their promises, this feeling damages the opposition as well as the governing party.


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