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Times Red Box: Voters Indifferent to Theresa May

Tue, 04 Apr 2017  |   Insights

By Jimmy Leach:  We live in a time of great turbulence, a time when men and women of substance must stand and be counted, must look the people in the eye . . . and receive a shrug and a grunt of ‘meh’ before everyone gets back to doing something else.

In the week of the most important piece of paper that Europe has seen since Neville Chamberlain waved his around the airport, you’d expect politicians to be playing the game of their lives, to show that the higher the stakes, the bigger their cojones. Instead, judging by social media data, the reaction they generate runs the gamut from indifference to ridicule. On this evidence, we’re in a time of political pygmies.

Impact Social looked across social media platforms at last week’s posts about Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron and Paul Nuttall, removing professional commentators, journalists and obvious party cheerleaders as well as retweets and duplicates.

These are the freely offered opinions of voters. They don’t make good reading for the party leaders.

Let’s start with Theresa May. Downing Street may feel that a lower profile suits her grown up and high-minded image (as well as heavy cuts to her office’s digital communications capacity) but looking at Impact Social’s data, it leaves voters unsure of who she is.

May’s positive ratings have fallen from 12 per cent to 9 per cent in the last month, while negative sentiment dropped to 14 per cent. The neutral (read: “indifferent”) figure rose significantly to 77 per cent from 69 per cent. At exactly the time when she should be imprinting herself on the public consciousness, she has done the opposite. If she can’t win our attention when the Brexit process is triggered, then the inevitable turbulence that lie ahead could cause some real headaches.

Tim Farron is the only leader of a major national party who significantly diverges from May on Brexit, but again no one seems to have noticed. Negative posts about the Lib Dem leader, largely driven by his perceived opportunism on Brexit, dropped from 26 per cent last month to 24 per cent, but positive sentiment dropped further, from 8 per cent to 3 per cent. Neutral acknowledgement was at 72 per cent.

Still, Farron can look Paul Nuttall in the eye and smirk, as the Ukip leader is the only one with a lower positive rating on social media, at a barely visible 2 per cent. The good news for Nuttall, though is that his negative ratings have hugely improved from the fallout of his creative CV and defeat in the Stoke by-election, dropping from 75 per cent to a mere 37 per cent. Ridicule made up half of that rating, along with criticism of Ukip’s internal turmoil and some accusations of racism. But after the debacle of the Stoke vote, the fact that 61 per cent of voters are now neutral about him will seem like a triumph.

There’s another boost for Nuttall. No matter how far he and his party fall, there’s another politician who generates more negativity on social media than he does. I write, of course, of Jeremy Corbyn.

An impressive 39 per cent of social media posts about Corbyn were negative. That figure is an improvement on last month’s 44 per cent but looks worse for Nuttall’s relative resurgence. Corbyn’s positive reactions are up (at 12 per cent, from 11 per cent), and he’s the only leader to gain more emotions than neutral reactions at 48 per cent. So he gets reactions, which is something.

Anti-Corbyn posts were driven by perceived incompetence and lack of opposition to the Tories, with his PMQs performances held up in particular. Supporters saw his Commons performances, particularly his response to the Budget, as plus points, which goes to show that it takes all sorts.

These figures suggest that May’s opinion poll lead may partly by fuelled by the fact that she is not Jeremy Corbyn. If voters are stil ambivalent to the prime minister in her supposed honeymoon period, when Brexit is still forming, she may be damaged by the obstacles which lie ahead.

She would not swap places with her opposite number, however. It is pretty grim for the Labour leader to be getting a worse response from voters than Paul Nuttall. For a man who claimed his resurgence would be driven by social media, he must now realise he is swimming upstream. Oh how he must long for indifference . . .

Jimmy Leach is a former head of digital communications in Downing Street