“It’s time for change, but who do we vote for?” My focus groups in Bicester and Romsey

This week’s focus groups brought together uncommitted previous Conservative voters in two southern seats on the Lib Dem hit list that the Tories would once have considered safe: Romsey and Southampton North, and the new constituency of Bicester and Woodstock.

Few were impressed with proceedings so far: “The Tories just seem to have pressed the self-destruct button. They’re not doing themselves any favours;” “It’s almost as if the Tories are going for being leader of the Conservative Party when they lose, rather than trying to fight this election;” “I really wish politics in the run-up to an election could be conducted over the radio, because it’s all to do with image and unimportant things;” “Someone was at Thorpe Park or somewhere, on one of the rides. He was just making a complete idiot of himself. I think it might have been a Lib Dem;” “It feels like all the adults have left the room. We used to have grown-up politicians and some of the better ones were actually those that were in the wings. We’ve just lost a very good minister of defence, for example, who was a very credible individual. There’s no-one I have any trust in on any front.”

Local campaigns were very much in evidence in both places: “There are lots of signs up, mostly Lib Dems. For some reason the Lib Dems are always much more visible. The Tories don’t put big signs in their front yards or windows or anything. I think there’s a danger you’d get people with pitchforks and burning torches egging your house. There’s a stigma attached to being a Tory.”


They can say what they like about it. They’ve never acted on it.


Only a few policies from the Conservative manifesto launch had filtered through to our participants, but one had been noticed more than most: “He’s got this obsession with National Insurance, which is a complete reversal of a policy from about three years ago when he increased it.” Some believed National Insurance was earmarked for specific areas of spending and worried about the consequences of cutting it: “That’s where you get your money from your pension. The fear of us getting to an age where there won’t be a state pension is already frightening enough.” The policy of scrapping NI for the self-employed caught the attention of the target group, but even here there were sceptics: “Obviously that is of interest. But all this feels like, there’s an election in three weeks’ time – why now? It feels a bit late to be suddenly chucking things like that at me. It seems a bit desperate.” Others were not inclined to listen to Tory tax promises of any kind: “The reality is that this is a government of taxation because the thresholds haven’t been changed for so long, and many people don’t pay National Insurance. And it was this government that brought in the child benefit cap, which they’re trying to reverse. But fundamentally there is a process where people can be paying 82% tax between fifty and sixty thousand. That’s the reality.” There were also mixed views on Help to Buy and scrapping stamp duty for first-time buyers up to £425,000.


Nobody has the right to my lifelong vote.


More broadly, “they’re promising the same things they promised ten, fourteen years ago. They just regurgitate the same thing. It’s putting it into action. Locally we’ve seen less police, longer waiting lists, doctors on strike…;” “All their manifestos have talked about immigration, and with every year that goes by, it becomes a bigger topic. They’ve made all these promises in the past and absolutely not kept to them. So my trust is gone. They can say what they want about it. They’ve never acted on it.” Some had run out of patience: “Time expired now, unfortunately. There is this thing where people are just tired of the government, and I think an awful lot of people are at that stage with the Tories. Nobody has the right to my lifelong vote.”

Complaints about the Conservative government included public services, especially the NHS, misguided priorities, the cost of living, the erosion of the armed forces, partygate, and economic instability: “the debacle of the prime minister who lasted 42 days or something. It’s kind of shocking to think that the Conservative Party, which is supposed to be the safe pair of hands, could actually let that happen. They are supposed to be the party of the economy and economic trust;” “You sit here and think, God, you know what? It’s been 14 years and here we still are. It’s not great, is it? Why should I go and give them that vote again when I haven’t got what I expected?”

Some had had high hopes for Rishi Sunak’s premiership in its early days: “I thought he was quite nice, trying to do his best in the beginning. Then as time has gone on, he doesn’t seem as truthful and honest, and he comes across as quite self-serving. He’s brought in or not brought in policies that would have affected his or his wife’s income over the last few years. I think they have a lot of money in offshore accounts;” “I thought he was the right thing after Liz Truss. I recognised him from the pandemic, and I thought, this is a good guy. My opinion has completely and utterly changed. I’m like, I don’t trust a word that comes out of your mouth.”


It seems incredible for him not to realise.


For many participants, the D-Day debacle summed up a leader who seemed detached from the country’s priorities: “I saw an interview and I understood what he was saying in terms of, you know, my diary is scheduled weeks in advance. But I thought, you’re still not doing yourself any favours, or the people who work for you aren’t, that’s for sure, love. Because it’s just so wrong. You should have been there;” “The 80th anniversary of D-Day wasn’t announced the other day;” “I thought it was disrespectful. A silly mistake;” “He was profusely apologetic for it. But the things is, it doesn’t change anything;” “I’m a veteran, and there is a bandwagon that people jump on about our brave heroes and all that sort of stuff. What it showed me is that Rishi Sunak talks a good story, but he doesn’t really put his money where his mouth is;” “It comes a week or two after the Tories were talking about national service and getting young people involved in serving and doing military stuff. It doesn’t really sit with that;” “I think he thought, I’ve done my bit, I need to campaign. I think he misunderstood the brief and misunderstood public opinion;” “He might have been poorly advised, but he should have said no, this is what I’m doing. He’s just slightly removed from reality;” “I think probably he is patriotic in his viewpoint, but his behaviour wasn’t patriotic on that day. He’s just out of touch;” “It’s like Michael Foot turning up looking bedraggled in Whitehall that November. It seems incredible for him not to realise.”

Locally, the Liberal Democrats provide the main opposition to the Tories. Many in the groups were not quite sure what to make of Ed Davey: “The press seems very keen to make him into some sort of caricature. And he seems happy to go along with it;” “He’s always falling off surfboards and things like that.” Those who had heard of any Lib Dem policies often talked about social care, including free personal care for the elderly, but these were a minority: “I’ve never heard anything from the Lib Dems other that ‘get the Tories out’;” “In 2010 there was Nick Clegg and lots of momentum behind him, and he seemed very intelligent and reasonable and calm. But the current leadership, I don’t really know who they are.”


They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re out of their depth.


In both our Bicester groups, participants said the record of Oxfordshire council made them hesitate to vote for the Lib Dems nationally: “They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re out of their depth. That frightens me at a local level, and while I’d love to see change at a national level, I’m concerned that the Lib Dems in our local authority are not up to the task;” “I’ve seen a significant decline since the council has gone Lib Dem. The roads have never been in a worse state. Getting around Bicester is slower than it’s ever been. And Nick Clegg did the dirty on the students. So I don’t trust the Lib Dems any more than any of them;” “It’s time for a change, but who do we vote for?”

For some, there was an additional disincentive to vote for the party: “I’m not sure I want Labour in nationally. That puts me off a bit.” Some dismissed this (“I’ve read in the paper that it’s going to be a 200 majority. So you think, what does it matter if it’s 199 or 200?”) Still, few in the groups were looking forward to a Labour government. None were inspired by Keir Starmer (“wishy-washy”, “not believable”, “hasn’t got an original thought. His idea of policy is to automatically gainsay whatever the government says”). Some feared that Starmer would come under pressure from the unions and the Corbynite left, and that a Labour government might been even looser controls on migration, more debt and – especially – higher taxes: “They’re saying they’re not going to raise the big three, so it will come from stealth taxes. Car tax, road tax, they’ll start taxing pension savings. Otherwise, where’s the money going to come from?” Again, though, some thought it futile to try to resist the inevitable: “As much as I don’t like it, the majority is going to be massive. They’re probably going to be in for eight or ten years. We might as well get used to it for a little while. So local issues maybe become more important.”

For some, this led to the question of whether to leave the Conservatives with the numbers to form a strong opposition, or whether the party needed a proper trouncing to make sure it got the point: “I think the Conservatives are about to get spanked big time. And if they don’t have a Tory MP in Romsey, that’s even worse, in terms of the numbers;” “I wouldn’t want Labour to have so many seats that they can just push anything through;” “I think they need a huge loss, a real wake-up call. Get rid of the dead ends. Try and discover what they’re actually really about again.”


He’ll say anything to make people happy.


Finally, if Rishi Sunak were a character from literature, TV or cinema, which character would he be? “Severus Snape from Harry Potter. His heart’s in the right place, but is he a good guy, is he a bad guy?” “Mr Cellophane from Chicago. Everyone can see through him;” “Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons. You just can’t trust the motives behind what they’re doing. They just care about the pot they’re sitting on;” “Andy MacDowell’s character in Four Weddings. ‘Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed’.”

What about Keir Starmer? “A Thunderbird;” “In The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy there’s this robot with no emotion, Marvin the Paranoid Android. He looks kind of stiff, uncomfortable, doesn’t he?” “Mr Benn. He’ll go in the changing room and emerge as whatever you want him to be;” “Bungle from Rainbow. He’ll say anything to make people happy;” “In the film Kes, the schoolteacher who has to take all the goal kicks, corners and penalties. You get the feeling it’s his party and he’s going to have to do everything.”

Ed Davey? “Frank Spencer;” “The Invisible Man;” “Baloo from The Jungle Book. A bit kind of bear-y, a bit shambling. You can’t dislike him, but I don’t know if you’d want him as a leader.”

And which fictional character is Nigel Farage? “Del Boy;” “Alf Garnett;” “The Artful Dodger;” “Danger Mouse;” “Toad of Toad Hall;” “Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat. Pure chaos, but might just tidy up right at the end. You never know.”

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