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“I can do this, and I’ll do it again if you don’t buck up your ideas”: My focus groups in Somerton, Selby and Uxbridge

Last week we held focus groups with wavering former Conservative voters as they prepare to go to the polls in Thursday’s by-elections: in Wincanton, in the heart of the Somerton & Frome constituency; at the South Ruislip end of the Uxbridge seat; and in Selby.

People in all three places had a pretty clear view about the unorthodox circumstances giving rise to the contests. Nigel Adams “didn’t get his honours, did he? So he threw his toys out of the pram and said right, that’s it.” David Warburton “took way too long to step down… It’s a little bit naughty of the Conservatives to let it go on for so long. I think they tried to let it die down because there was so much going on elsewhere” (though there was some sympathy: “He had to stand down, but he had a really rough ride from the parliament people… It sounds like he’s been gagged from saying anything about the harassment allegations. I mean, people can forgive the odd snort of cocaine these days, but the sexual allegations were the real meat of the scandal and we’re none the wiser about what happened, if anything at all”).

 

“He jumped before he was pushed. It’s not because he’s done the honourable thing or anything like that.”

(Uxbridge & South Ruislip)

 

Boris Johnson also had some support (“the whole partygate thing was overblown and was very politically motivated;” “I liked his differentness, the way he approached people;” “he should have stuck around. It just looks like a joke now. I don’t think anyone will take the Tories seriously”), but only up to a point: “He jumped before he was pushed. It’s not because he’s done the honourable thing or anything like that.” Either way, “we’ve got four or five by-elections at the same time, who are all MPs who have voluntarily resigned, which doesn’t reflect well on the Conservative leadership in government.”

Campaigning in all three seats had evidently been relentless: “I’ve never seen so many leaflets. The more you get, the less you look at;” “I’ve had personal letters. ‘Dear Caroline!’ I had one from Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street;” “Keir Starmer sent me a letter.” “Did you write back?” “No, I thought he was over-familiar.”

Lib Dem Sarah Dyke had evidently made an impact in Somerton & Frome: “She has actually come to parish council meetings. Anyone that rocks up at 7 o’clock on a Tuesday to listen to what local concerns are, from my perspective, that almost overrides your political party;” “I’d never heard of her before, but she’s certainly got a profile now. I’m fed up to the back teeth with her!” Tory Faye Purbrick “says ‘I’m a Somerset girl’. Well, yes, because she lives in Yeovil, and actually that’s not in the constituency;” “One of her policies was about local transport. Well, I’ve never seen her at the Bus Back Better meetings in the last year. If you’re going to say you want to make a difference, you have to have a background.” In her defence, the constituency is huge and diverse: “It’s like two constituencies in one. Frome was hived off from Wells all those years ago. Frome is very separate. These days it seems to be run by left-wing women.”

 

“They’re bothered about your vote, but they’re not bothered about you.”

(Selby & Ainsty)

 

Many had views about their candidates’ localness or otherwise. In Uxbridge, “the Labour candidate is a chap called Danny, who is a councillor from Camden. Very unusual to be standing in this area, I would have thought.” In Selby & Ainsty, “the Tory is selling herself as a local, but she’s a councillor in East Riding!” Labour’s Keir Mather (“he was born in Hull”) had been out and about – “he came to our village fete at the weekend. I made him buy a raffle ticket” – but there were mixed views as to whether it matters that “he looks about twelve.” On the one hand, “he’s not very assertive. He might get eaten alive.” Then again, “the older ones haven’t exactly made a great job of it.”

Several noted that they had been favoured with visits from high-profile figures including Sunak and Starmer. At such a tough time, this did not always produce the intended reaction: “You don’t see them, and then even the leaders are on your doorstep. It just makes you sick, the fact that they’re bothered about your vote, but they’re not bothered about you.”

Local issues were evidently playing a big part in all the campaigns. Farming, planning disputes and local bus services were common themes in the two rural seats, and health services in all three: “Hillingdon Hospital is falling apart. It was approved to be rebuilt but it keeps being delayed;” “I waited four weeks for a doctor’s appointment. I think that’s wholly unacceptable;” “Please don’t tell me about the NHS and dentists because how long have you been in power and how hard is it to get a dentist in Somerset? You have to go to Cardiff to get an NHS dentist.”

 

“The Labour guy has stuck his ass firmly on the fence.”

(Uxbridge & South Ruislip)

 

Two further issues in Uxbridge had the potential to play in the Conservatives’ favour. One was crime, provided they could pin the situation on the Mayor: “I feel like Sadiq Khan doesn’t care. There’s not enough police. But when that girl was murdered by a police officer, they wanted to stop men going out on the street after 9pm and he was talking about stuff like that. And they can spend money putting rainbow things round their hats;” “Uxbridge town centre has changed a lot. You feel different, especially late at night. Early evening, I should say, because you wouldn’t want to be out later.”

The other was Khan’s planned extension to the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, which would see some residents charged £12.50 a day for driving in the district. “ULEZ is a big, big thing. It affects my business because people don’t want to cross over from outside the area;” “The Labour administration has completely overspent so they’re using ULEZ as a cash cow. I do quite admire Boris, because he did actually call it a bonehead scheme;” “Essentially it is only the rich being able to drive in the area. You can pollute as much as you like as long as you pay £12.50.” The view was not universal: “With all the pollution it’s something we’ve got to get on board with. There was that young black girl that died. I don’t know how to resolve it, but if our kids are going to be dying something needs to be resolved.” Even so, Labour clearly felt under pressure: “The Labour guy is now sending out literature that says he’s in favour of it being delayed since he started canvassing. So he’s stuck his ass firmly on the fence.”

 

“There’s nothing on the Lib Dem leaflet about legal or illegal immigration. The Conservatives have shown they’re no good and everyone else just wants an open door.”

(Somerton & Frome)

 

The list of national issues exercising voters was familiar, including the cost of living, interest rates, the NHS and public services, and small boats. This last was particularly vexing for former Tories who felt the government did not have a grip non the situation but that other parties would not even try: “There’s nothing on the Lib Dem leaflet about legal or illegal immigration. The Conservatives have shown they’re no good and everyone else just wants an open door.”

Whether or not the government was directly to blame for the state of the country, “that’s the job. They have been in power for 13 years, and are we in a better position than we were 13 years ago?” “They’ve had so many years to fix these problems. Striking nurses! It reminds me of the 1970s. And at the end of the day, you’ve been in power for untold years and you’re going round in circles.” The situation had hardly made people receptive to political promises: “They knock on the door and say ‘oh, we’re going to do this’. It’s like a man promising you everything until they get what they want, and you end up doing the washing up.”

 

“I don’t think they care whether they win the next election or not.”

(Uxbridge & South Ruislip)

 

There was some praise for Sunak – “straightforward,” “economically very sound,” “not scandalous,” and “quite honest with people, he doesn’t sugar-coat things” – but also a widespread feeling that he was “treading water,” “a bit of a lame duck,” and “just kind of placeholding.” More generally, the government seemed detached – “I don’t think they’ve got a grip on reality and what it’s like for real people” – and seemed to be running out of steam: “I don’t think they care whether they win the next election or not;” “I think no matter what policies they come out with, people just don’t trust them anymore.” Kinder descriptions of the administration included disappointing, ineffective, dishonest, a circus, a shambles, dormant, paralysed, static and “a hot mess” (and the participants had all voted Conservative in 2019).

However, none of this could be taken as a positive endorsement of the Tories’ opponents. Starmer was better than his predecessor but “Donald Duck would be an improvement on Corbyn.” Many thought the Labour leader seemed lacklustre: “He needs a bit more about him, does Keir Starmer. He’s just a little bit drab. He needs to be a bit more vocal and have a bit more passion, more fire in his belly. He has it in his hands to win the election but he needs more oomph;” “I can’t see him on the world stage. I don’t think he has the backbone to go toe-to-toe with Putin.”

 

“They whinge and bitch about the Tories but it’s not good enough just to say you can do it better.”

(Somerton & Frome)

 

While there were honourable mentions for Angela Rayner, Wes Streeting, Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips, some felt Labour seemed as disunited as the Conservatives: “It would be nice if he liked his deputy enough to talk to her. It’s not exactly hashtag one team, is it?”

People also felt the party was light on direction: “It’s hard to pin down what they will actually do. They whinge and bitch about the Tories but it’s not good enough just to say you can do it better;” “The shadow chancellor is on TV a lot but she’s very cagey. When they ask her ‘would you lower taxes? Would you do this or that?’ she just evades it and there’s no answer.”

Similarly, while plenty of our Somerset participants were inclined to vote for Sarah Dyke, they remained very doubtful about her party. “Would a Lib Dem really have any sort of power? They’ve got a reputation of being a south-west England party rather than a national party that can make a difference;” “If you don’t think you’re going to win, you can aspire to anything, and you’ll never have to prove anything.” Some also had bitter memories of the Cameron-Clegg years: “I fell for the Nick Clegg trap all those years ago. He promised me on his mother’s flippin life that he would scrap tuition fees, so I gave him my vote and he threw me under a bus;” “David Heath was the Lib Dem MP here and he was a decent chap, but he was given a portfolio in the coalition government and ended up in the Ministry of Agriculture gassing badgers. That did for him. No-one liked him after that.”

 

“I can do this, and I’ll do it again if you don’t buck up your ideas.”

(Somerton & Frome)

 

Both our groups in Somerton & Frome expected a Lib Dem victory on Thursday, but our west London and North Yorkshire participants were less sure of the outcome. Several said they would stay at home, some said they would grudgingly vote Conservative, and others were planning to make their displeasure felt: “I think the Conservatives do need a bit of a warning. I could actually vote for them at the general election, simply because I don’t have any faith in Labour or the Lib Dems. But in this by-election I will vote Lib Dem so they realise I am really pissed off;” “It’s the last-chance saloon. You have let us down in so many ways, and this is my life you’re playing around with. It’s about time you realise that I do have influence. I’m a woman and I have a vote and I would like to know that I can make a difference. I can do this, and I’ll do it again if you don’t buck up your ideas.”

 

“He’s not going to be ordering a pina colada, put it that way.”

(Selby & Ainsty)

 

To conclude, a seasonal exercise. Imagine Keir Starmer and the Labour team go on their summer holidays together. Is there anyone they would accidentally-on-purpose leave behind? “Angela Rayner. She’s not part of their metropolitan elite. And they couldn’t keep up with her;” “Jonathan Ashworth, because he’s incredibly annoying. He’d be the one with the itinerary, ticking boxes. They’d tell him it was Gatwick and actually they’re all at Heathrow.” Where would they go? “Probably nowhere because they can’t decide. The plane can’t take off because they don’t know where they’re going;” “It would have to be a package because they couldn’t organise anything.” What kind of place would they stay? “I think they’d want to make a statement that they’re not big spenders;” “He’s got to be a hotel man. He’s a sir, Keir Starmer, so he’s not going to be staying in a tent, is he? Too posh;” “Well it could be a bit of glamping, couldn’t it? True Labour would have roughed it in a tent, but they would want something more sophisticated. So you go glamping, but you still need wellies to get to the toilet.” What would they all have to drink before dinner? “I don’t think he would have a pint. He’s not a man of the people, is he? Maybe a gin and tonic. Or a nice cup of tea;” “Something really plain. He’s a really plain guy. He’s not going to be ordering a pina colada, put it that way;” “They’ve got vodka in their handbags and they’re only buying Coke from the bar.”

Meanwhile, what’s happening on the Tory getaway? “It would be somewhere tax-free like Grand Cayman. But they’d pretend it was the Canary Islands, or Morecambe;” “Rishi’s pad in California. Or Mrs Sunak’s castle;” “Somewhere that was owned by somebody else. Necker Island or something like that.” What would they do? “Drinking and golfing. If it’s gone the 12th, they’ll be on the grouse moors;” “They try and leave Boris behind he turns up with a case of Stella and wrecks it;” “Afterwards they’d put it down as a business trip. Or deny that they went anywhere.”

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