The Conservatives and Labour are level at 33% in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, conducted over the past weekend. Both parties are up on last week (Labour by four points, the Tories by two). The Liberal Democrats are unchanged at 8%, with UKIP and the Greens each down three points at 12% and 5% respectively. The SNP are up a point at 6%. All but one change was within the margin of error. We will see in the weeks to come whether this signals a sustained move back towards the established parties as voters begin to concentrate on the choice of government.
Last week’s Budget appears to have had no overall impact on people’s assessment of whom to trust with the economy. This week I found 43% saying they most trusted David Cameron and George Osborne, exactly the same proportion as over the pre-Budget weekend. One quarter trusted Ed Miliband and Ed Balls more, down an insignificant 1% since last week. As before, one fifth of Labour voters said they trusted the Tory team more than the two Eds.
While men most trusted Cameron and Osborne by a 26-point margin (49% to 23%), women did so by just 12 points (37% to 26%). Though they were equally likely to say they trusted neither, women were more than twice as likely to say (or admit) that they didn’t know (12%, compared to 5% of men).
Less than a quarter of voters (23%) said they thought they and their family would be better off if we were to have five years of Conservative government – again, exactly the same proportion as when I last asked the question at the beginning of November. Only 18% thought they would be better off under Labour (up two points), while a majority (53%, including 53% of Labour voters) said they thought the party in power would make no difference to whether they were better off or not.
In this week’s focus groups, news of the decision at hand had filtered through to most of our undecided voters, if not all (“when is the next general election?” one fellow asked conversationally, as though discussing leap years or the Olympic Games). One sternly reminded the group about the importance of turning out on the day: “If you’re registered and you don’t vote, your vote goes to the party in power.” Puzzled looks all round. “Is that not right? I’ve been told that for years.” Oddly enough this is not the first time we have heard this said in my research. Where do these ideas come from?
On Tuesday evening in Leamington, none of our participants had realised that the following day was Budget day. Some lamented that the event had lost its old magic: “Years ago you would sit around the telly and watch it. Then you used to drive to the petrol station and fill your tank before the tax went up”. Nobody expected anything concrete that would affect them, except perhaps the usual niggling tax hike on life’s small pleasures (“I work hard for my cigarettes!”).
But on the Thursday in Dewsbury it was clear that some of the announcements had got through to our swing voters, at least temporarily. Several said there had been more positive things in the Budget than they had expected. People spontaneously mentioned the higher income tax threshold, the petrol duty freeze, the penny off beer, the minimum wage rise and – especially – the new savings scheme for first-time buyers. A number of people had noted the details of the Help to Buy ISA, which is unusual for a policy announcement of any kind, and planned to take advantage of it.
Even so, there was scepticism on some fronts: the planned increase in the tax threshold for 2017 “leaves plenty of time for them to change their minds”, and for some the concern was “more what they didn’t talk about. He didn’t mention the NHS at all.” Several were also doubtful about the Chancellor’s sunny picture of the economy, and particularly the number of zero-hours contracts hidden in the job creation figures: “unemployment is down drastically but is it meaningful employment?”
The groups were shown Labour’s five headline election pledges (“a strong economic foundation, higher living standards for working families, an NHS with the time to care, controls on immigration, a country where the next generation can do better than the last”). They were presented unlabelled, so to speak, alongside the six Conservative themes launched in January (“dealing with the economic deficit, creating jobs, lowering taxes, improving education, tackling housing shortages, helping the retired”). As often as not people associated the pledge or theme with the wrong party: “A strong economic foundation. That’s Tory. I can just see David Cameron mouthing those words”. The apparent interchangeability of the parties’ priorities led to confusion bordering on despair among some participants (“I don’t think I’m going to vote. And to think what the Suffragettes went through”). However, a few thought they detected a pattern: “That’s Labour isn’t it [it was], because it looks like they’re spending a lot of money”.
The details of Labour’s pledges – including 25 hours free childcare, 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more GPs and a cut in tuition fees – sounded appealing to many in the groups but provoked the familiar suspicions. In particular they doubted the statement in the first pledge that none of Labour’s manifesto commitments require additional borrowing. “It’s what everyone wants but I really don’t know how we can afford to do it”; “Just recently they were reporting that there are not enough GPs. How can we suddenly have them? It takes years to train a GP”; “I see hidden taxes and debt going back up. How much interest are we paying already?”
News of a politician having two kitchens had reached the groups, albeit through what appeared in some cases to be a series of Chinese whispers. “David Cameron did that photo in his huge kitchen for his Christmas cards that he sent to his friends, and then he did that election photo in the tiny kitchen where the servants make tea.” That was Ed Miliband, someone pointed out. “Well, there you are. That’s why I’m voting UKIP.”
This echoed the more serious point that “MPs complain that they struggle to get by on seventy grand a year. They don’t seem to realise people are struggling to get by on £7 an hour.”
Reservations about each of the parties are now well embedded and look unlikely to change in the next six weeks. Doubts about Labour were evident from the discussion of their pledges, and the trouble with Ed Miliband is that “he doesn’t make you think anything after you’ve watched him.” The Lib Dems’ party political broadcast had been “laughable – Clegg was making all these promises and I thought, well, you didn’t do naff all last time”. Some thought David Cameron was “a bit Jeremy Clarkson” (in a bad way, apparently), although “I believe him more than I believe any of the others”. Some were wary of the Conservatives for deep-rooted historical reasons (“the miners and sh*t. That was pretty hardcore”), though on the upside, with their austerity plans you knew what you were going to get: “at least the Tories say they are going to screw you and then they screw you”. For all UKIP’s virtues “they want to close the border, but I’d like to be able to work abroad”, and again some worried that “they’re like a sly version of the BNP”, and that while “Farage has the image of the beer-swilling man of the people there are plenty of issues in the background that they don’t talk about that would come through if they ever got close to power.” As for the Greens (“bless them”), “where have they been for the last five years? Are they a competitor?”
One aspect of the contest that some feel has received too little attention is this: if each of the leaders were a band or singer, which band or singer would they be? Mr Miliband would be something inoffensive but perhaps not entirely current – Wham, say, or Daniel O’Donnell. Mr Clegg? Something middle-of-the-road – the Lighthouse Family or Simply Red, or Cliff Richard who “pops up at Christmas then goes back down again” , or “someone’s sidekick, like Sonny in Sonny and Cher”. Mr Cameron was harder to place: Take That (“he’d be Gary Barlow”), Coldplay, Justin Bieber or Keith Urban – though some saw him as Simon Cowell, the impresario rather than the performer. No such ambiguity with Mr Farage, though: three of our four groups spontaneously said he would be Johnny Rotten or the Sex Pistols: “he just wants to swear and drink beer and wee all over people”. That or The Wurzels.