The final round of my general election focus groups comes from three Labour seats in Wales: Cardiff South & Penarth, Alyn & Deeside, and Newport West, with participants who voted Labour or UKIP in 2015. As they looked back on the campaign, what had made an impression? “It’s mostly the gaffes that stand out…The lady for Labour, when she completely messed up.” “Diane Abbott.” “That’s the one. That sticks out for me.” “The pensioners getting screwed.” “Corbyn today, not knowing about childcare, and Theresa May launching her manifesto that within twelve hours had been turned round.” Few had felt inspired: “It strikes me there’s no real vision, how to take the next step. To be honest, it’s a little bit of a mess.”
What about the last few days? “There was a lot about her not going to the debate yesterday. And that tends to overshadow the actual debate.” Does that matter? “Yes!” “She called the snap election, and can’t be bothered turning up to it.” Most people in our Thursday night groups had not watched the Channel 4/Sky debate, and only one had managed to put up with more than fifteen minutes of it. What could they remember? “Tim Farron was going on about Brexit. I thought, that’s done now, stop going on about it.” “I liked the Green lady. She spoke really well.” Do you remember who she was? “I did Google her afterwards but I’ve forgotten her name now. Was it Helen? Helen Archer?”
However unedifying the spectacle, what do Labour want you to think the election is about? “That they’re for everybody, rather than the chosen few.” “Taxing the rich”. “Saving everyone a ton of money.” And what about the Conservatives? “Brexit Brexit Brexit Brexit”. The message is getting through, then. “There’s nothing positive. They’re just saying they can manage the Brexit better.
Those who recalled Tory policy proposals usually talked about the costs they thought they would bring: “I think she’s stitching the pensioners over, the triple lock, the winter fuel payments, the Dementia Tax.” “They promised a triple lock on pensions and that’s getting scrapped, and my dad’s getting on and saying he might have to sell his house to fund his care… To be honest with you, I don’t care about the outside world and what goes on – all I care about is the four walls of my house and how it’s going to affect me and my kids.” “I don’t agree with the way she’s talking about carrying on the austerity, with the NHS, the police force and everything else, but insists on carrying on paying out the foreign aid budget.”
The Tories’ opponents have evidently done an effective job of characterising some of the party’s policy plans. “Three or four weeks ago when the general election first came about, I was going to vote Conservative for the first time ever. But since the manifesto she brought out about getting rid of free school meals for children… Some people in this country, that’s the child’s only hot meal of the day.” “The Dementia Tax, that seems pretty bad. I don’t think it’s very nice, preying on those that need it.” Do you know what the policy is? “Those that are suffering dementia and have got some money are getting taxed on their healthcare for dementia. Have I got that right?”
The policy did have some defenders: “They just take everything now, don’t they, if your parents went into a home. So at least you’d have something, rather than nothing. So it’s better”; “There are people who have never worked a day in their life and they get everything paid for, but don’t get me started on that one, it does annoy me.”
The apparent post-launch amendment to the social care policy also prompted concerns: “She said there was a cap, and then no, there wasn’t a cap, and then there was a cap. It just makes them seem unreliable and less, I don’t know, honest, somehow”; “You’d assumed she would have signed that off, for the manifesto, and within 24 hours she’s reversing it”. Some felt a theme had emerged: “There’s quite a few U-turns she’s done. She said she’d never announce a general election, and all of a sudden she announced a general election, she was walking in the hills of Wales. She U-turned on quite a few things before that as well – National Insurance.”
As so often in focus groups, there was a useful reminder that everyday political jargon is less widely understood than people in Westminster might think: “Instead of means testing people for the Winter Fuel Allowance, why don’t they take people like Paul McCartney et al, who gets it anyway, he’s entitled to it, with £800 million in the bank, he gets that, so they should say ‘no, you can’t have that’.”
But as far as issues were concerned, one continued to trump all others for many of these voters: “At the moment I believe in more of Labour’s policies, but if it’s about Brexit, Theresa May”; “I would prefer Theresa May to fight for Brexit. I don’t think Corbyn has got it in him to fight for anything”; “I want to vote for UKIP. But because of Brexit, there’s so much at stake, I feel that quite possibly, if I put that UKIP vote down, that is a vote that is going to go against Theresa May and in the favour of Jeremy Corbyn. I’m considering voting Tory just to make sure she’s the one negotiating Brexit”; “Jeremy doesn’t want to upset anybody, so he wants to go out holding hands with everybody, and I don’t think that’s going to be the best deal for our country. I think she’ll dig her heels in a bit more.”
If the Conservative programme appeared grim and gritty, some habitual Labour supporters had felt uplifted by some of the things in their own party’s manifesto – especially more spending, and an end to public sector pay restraint. Scrapping university tuition fees was widely popular, but not universally so (“People need to pay their way in life”). But doubts nagged at many former Labour voters: “I just don’t know where Corbyn thinks all the money is going to come from, when our country is constantly saying there is no money. And now he’s on about giving free childcare”; “I think there’s a worry that Labour will get us back into debt again”.
And some Labour supporters were disturbed rather than cheered by the party’s shift to the left: “I always thought Labour were fighting for equality of opportunity for everyone, and this is the first time I’ve seen them looking at equality of outcome, where they’re trying to grab something to give it to another person, or deny someone… We’ve had a lot of Labour governments that I thought were progressive, moving towards the middle, trying to be what I considered reasonably fair. But he seems to have gone much further to the left. I’ve never wanted to be carried or carry anyone, I’ve just wanted to have a reasonably level playing field where I can ply my skills, time, trade, effort, and it seems that he’s saying ‘no, no, everyone should have everything’.”
Some regular Labour voters also asked themselves what they had got in return for their loyalty: “Thinking about the local area, I don’t think they’ve really done anything to tackle antisocial behaviour, littering, fly-tipping. It seems like they’ve been quite complacent… It just seems like, even though we’re voting Labour locally, are they really interested?
As for Corbyn himself, some had been surprised and impressed by his performance during the campaign. If you’d asked me a year ago if Jeremy Corbyn would make a good Prime Minister, I’d have laughed, because he was just a shambolic joke. But he’s transformed himself. He’s been so impressive in the debates”; “He’s started to dress properly, recently, started to put a shirt and tie on properly”; “He’s like that person at school you really, really hate, but when you get to know them you find they’re actually quite cool.”
But Labour’s less committed voters, in particular, were less convinced: “I think he’s the most humanitarian of all our politicians… But that could be our problem with Corbyn. He’s just going to give it all away”; “He’s got the right thoughts, but I’m not a hundred per cent that he could put them into place. The sentiment’s behind it, he knows what he wants to do, but I’m not convinced he’s the one that will be able to make it happen… You just can’t imagine him being up there with all the other world leaders… If he was like a local MP, there would be no question. But I just don’t get that competence from him, on that sort of, you know, being the Prime Minister of the country”; “He’s not on the ball enough with his figures on things he should know. In the interview this morning he had to get his iPad out and look it up!” “Not everyone in his party wanted him as leader, so if they didn’t have the confidence in him, then how are we meant to have confidence?” “Shouldn’t they all be singing from the same hymn book, so to speak?”
What do we actually know about the man who aspires to be the next Prime Minister? Let’s have some facts. “I know he got arrested.” “He’s been divorced twice.” “He lives in a normal terraced house.” “He lives in a house worth several million.” “He wears terrible clothes.” “He doesn’t claim a lot in parliamentary expenses.” “He wants to privatise the railways.” “No, nationalise them.” “Oh, yeah.” “What did he say he wouldn’t do when he was elected? He wasn’t going to curtsey, or bow, or he wasn’t going to do something.” “Am I right in thinking Corbyn has never had a real job? As in real, you know, working in business, for instance.” “He had links with the IRA. I didn’t like that at all.”
What do we know about Number Ten’s current occupant? “She likes shoes.” “She wants to bring back fox hunting.” “She spent a thousand pounds on a pair of trousers, didn’t she?.” “Never had children.” “She goes to the gym on a Saturday and she goes to church on a Sunday.” “She’s upper class, I guess.”
Finally, to conclude our series of revealing if seemingly peculiar questions, if Jeremy Corbyn were a biscuit, what kind of biscuit would he be? “A Jammie Dodger. He dodges all the important questions.” “A Custard Cream. It’s not something you’d go, ‘ooh, I want a Custard Cream’. I’d take it if it was given to me, I wouldn’t choose it off the shelf.” “Bourbon. The kind that nobody really wants but it’s often the only one left.” “Hard tack army rations. They taste horrible, they don’t fill you up, they’re not much use for anything.” “A Digestive. You can dunk him and he tastes nicer.” What? “He’s a nice and comforting Digestive.”
And if the Leader of the Opposition were a drink? “A smoothie or something, made out of something organic and foul.” “Ale. A down-to-earth pint. Something your dad would drink, your Grampy.” “Bitter lemon. Because he’s bitter, and a lemon.”
What about if Theresa May were a drink? “Bailey’s or prosecco. Because she’s sophisticated, she’s classy.” “Strong builder’s tea that you forgot to drink and it’s gone cold.” “A glass of water. You need it to survive, but there’s nothing to it.” “A double vodka. Comes with a kick.”
And if the Prime Minister were a biscuit? “A Marks & Spencer selection”. “A Viennese Whirl, or something like that.” “A chocolate Hobnob.” That’s a pretty fancy biscuit. “Well, she’s up herself, isn’t she, and so are chocolate Hobnobs.” “A Jaffa Cake. She’s nice on the outside, but I don’t like the middle of a Jaffa Cake.” “A cookie. They’re tough, and they crumble.” “One of them hard ones at the bottom of the tin that have been there six months. It looks quite nice but you bite it and break all your teeth.”