It’s not quite hallelujah time, but the year ends with plentiful reasons for Labour people to be cheerful. Their Christmas cards arrive with scrawled messages of political optimism for 2022, and that’s new. These wilderness years took their toll, with optimism in short supply. Now even Labour’s professional Eeyores are allowing themselves a beam or two of hope: “For the first time, I think we can win,” one tells me, almost surprised to be speaking those words.

The poll of polls gives Labour a 6% lead on an upward trajectory. Boris Johnson is plummeting with a 69% disapproval rating against 31% approval and Keir Starmer is now 10 points ahead on who would make the best prime minister with YouGov. Gideon Skinner, Ipsos Mori’s head of political research, points to Starmer now beating Johnson hollow on key measures in their December monitor: best as a capable leader, of sound judgment, understanding the problems facing the country, more honest than most politicians and a good representative for Britain on the world stage. Starmer loses out heavily on “has a lot of personality” and “more style than substance” – but haven’t people had enough of personality and style? On one important measure Johnson still leads by 14 points, as most “patriotic”, so best not to mock the Labour leader appearing in front of a union flag. As for who is “out of touch with ordinary people”, Johnson wins hands down at 63% to Starmer’s 33%.

“This is a new landmark,” Skinner says. “Starmer ahead as the most capable leader is the first time for a Labour leader since Gordon Brown before the 2008 crash. Neither Miliband nor Corbyn ever were.” The government is at its lowest approval rating yet on managing the economy, levelling up and immigration, with seven out of 10 people saying it’s doing a bad job on the NHS and three-quarters responding that it’s doing badly on the cost of living.

Pause here to breathe in and relish the moment, because of course there is a “but” coming, so hold the Hosannas. Are we nearly there yet? Halfway, maybe – as no one knows when the election will be, in what economic climate or facing which leader. At last Labour has scotched its dark negatives. “But they haven’t been replaced with positives,” says Skinner.

YouGov, which likewise puts Starmer 10 points ahead of Johnson as best prime minister, also finds 55% still don’t think he looks like a prime minister in waiting or that Labour is ready for government. Patrick English, YouGov’s research manager, notes that gains for Starmer and Labour “are clearly built on shaky foundations that could quite quickly crumble if Boris Johnson and his government are able to court favour with the British public once again”. But with Johnson’s low scores on inflation, immigration and health, he “may not find the public so quickly forgiving”.

As darts and football crowds chant for his downfall, can anyone recover from such a plunge? His ratings now match the lowest ever for any prime minister, back in 1981, says Skinner. Ah, yes, that was Margaret Thatcher at her lowest ebb, before she went on to win another two elections, followed by one more by her successor. It’s frightening to think this law-breaking, proroguing, treaty-reneging prime minister may even now be pondering how she recovered: she went to war on the other side of the world.

The problem, the polls find, is a lack of positive reasons to vote Labour. Too many voters are hanging mid-air, poised to switch, possibly, maybe. YouGov finds a full 20% who voted Tory last time are now undecided: 5% would abstain but only 6% say they would vote Labour instead, so far.

Yet after the deep blue rural leavers of North Shropshire’s astounding switch to the Liberal Democrats, something seismic is shifting. They figured out tactical voting, leaping over Labour’s second place to understand that despite the Lib Dems only winning 10% of the vote last time, they had the best chance. An enjoyably mad calculation in the Telegraph shakes with angst: that 34% swing replicated in a general election would produce zero Tory seats, none at all. Its poll mirrors others showing Labour’s current lead would win 320 seats, as the biggest party with no overall majority.

One fillip for progressive parties in that byelection was the fading salience of Brexit. YouGov records that 60% of respondents think the government has handled Brexit badly, against 29% saying it was done well. Asked in hindsight was it right or wrong to leave, 49% now say wrong, only 38% right. That gives Starmer’s “Make Brexit work” real traction, especially with Liz Truss at the helm of the sinking Brexit ship.

The new year starts with Labour on a bounce, with a newly proactive and pugilistic shadow cabinet. The NHS is an open goal for the combative shadow health secretary Wes Streeting: the Tories have no hiding place from blame for the catastrophic effects of their decade of underfunding and undertraining of medics.

It’s time now for Labour to plant more flags giving voters positive reasons to switch. The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, has made a start: her promise that “the broadest shoulders” will pay for reviving public services has doorstep resonance. More of that is needed on every front to signify policy direction and purpose. Famously, Roy Jenkins mocked Labour preparing for its 1997 win as overcautiously tiptoeing across a slippery floor carrying a Ming vase. Starmer needs to worry a bit less about slipping with that vase, and dare a bit more.

Polly Toynbee

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