“What matters is that they’ll try”: My focus groups in Doncaster, Morecambe and Tatton

This week’s focus group tour takes us to three rather different constituencies in the north of England: Doncaster East & the Isle of Axholme; Morecambe & Lunesdale; and Tatton – George Osborne’s once safe Cheshire seat which is now too close to call, according to recent MRP studies.

The PM being denied Sky TV as a child was the stand-out story of the week for many of our participants: “When I was growing up, nobody had Sky. I had a black and white telly!” “He thinks he was hard up when he was younger because of that. He’s literally never lived.” Some had a degree of sympathy – “I don’t think it’s fair, they’re just jumping on one thing and exaggerating it out of all proportion” – but even they saw a pattern: “Rishi Sunak sometimes doesn’t help himself with some of his comments. They just show how he doesn’t really understand normal people. A lot of what is shown in these memes that everyone is sharing is that we don’t feel like he represents us and knows what it’s like to live in the country, in the real world. I think that’s why they pick on him a lot;” “He gives a sense of entitlement;” “He comes across very awkward. When he talks to members of the public it’s quite cringeful sometimes. Like he’s never been to the pub and had a conversation with anyone;” “Whether you liked Boris or not, at least he went out and about and at least tried to understand – probably didn’t, but at least he made an effort. Whereas Sunak doesn’t seem to have done anything but distance himself from normal working-class people.”


I genuinely think he doesn’t want to be re-elected


Some thought Sunak’s unfortunate campaign (“he always seems to be doing things wrong”) had a deeper explanation: “I genuinely think he doesn’t want to be re-elected. He’s just doing the bare minimum to look like he’s playing the game;” “I read that once he’s finished, if he doesn’t get re-elected, he’s going to go to Silicon Valley. So that’s all they’re interested in.”

Our participants had all voted Conservative in 2019 but put their likelihood of doing so again in July at 5/10 or less. Multiple reasons were given, including special needs provision in schools, public transport and the cancellation of HS2, the state of the police and armed forces, the “revolving door” of prime ministers, partygate (“making the rules and not sticking to them”), experiences with the NHS (“I’m going in for the snip. It took ten months, four different conversations with different consultants. Just a waste of everybody’s time”), covid contracts (“if we were a third-world country people would have been dragged out of parliament and lynched in the street because of how corrupt they’ve been”) and immigration (“as a child I would happily have walked down Morecambe Promenade of an evening, but I wouldn’t allow my daughter to do it now because there are so many hotels full to the brim with immigrants males – not women and children”).


They said inflation wasn’t their fault, but now it’s come down they’re taking the credit


People were also reluctant to accept that the economy was improving, or that if it was, this was down to the government: “They blamed 12% inflation on the war in Ukraine and the effect it had on oil prices. They said it wasn’t their fault. But now it’s come down, they’re taking the credit for it.” If things were getting better, “I haven’t seen it in my pocket. I’m not noticing when I fill my car up or go to the supermarket and spent £120 and come home with two shopping bags and no full meals.” Younger participants sometimes felt especially aggrieved: “A lot of younger people are like angry. The price of houses has shot up. Just coming out of uni, they haven’t had a proper uni experience, and everything’s been pulled out from under. A lot of my mates are just like ‘I’ll vote the opposite of what’s going on now’ because of how angry they are.”

None of which had put our groups in a very receptive mood for the Conservative manifesto. A few welcomed higher tax thresholds for pensioners, national service and help for first-time buyers, but the problem was credibility: “They promise us things, but it doesn’t happen, does it?” “They’re going to cut immigration, but they’ve been saying that for 14 years;” “When you look at the figures and what they’re proposing… I’ve always been a staunch Conservative, and I can’t get it to add up;” “It annoyed me seeing them come out with all these plans. I’m thinking, why aren’t you doing it? You’ve had your time.”

However, there was just as much scepticism for Labour’s plans: “Keir Starmer mentioned the other day about 20 million more GP appointments a year. How’s that going to happen in such a short time when it takes a GP five or seven years to qualify?” “Are they building new prisons for these 14,000 new places? Or are they just letting people out early to fill it up with more people?” “Where are all these appointments coming from? You can’t flog a dead horse and expect it to run;” “Where are they getting the extra prison officers? They’re already having difficulty recruiting people;” “They say they’re going to spend more money and they’re not going to raise taxes. So how they can they deliver what they promise? They just like to borrow.”


Boris was charismatic, and look how that turned out


Many also had big reservations about Keir Starmer, often relating to stories they had heard about his legal career: “He’s the barrister who looked into Jimmy Savile and decided there was no case to answer;” “He was in charge of prosecutions at the time of the grooming scandals in Rotherham and he didn’t punish them people. If you won’t do something about a nonce, you’re not going to run the country very well;” “Apparently, he wasn’t willing to prosecute the Muslims raping and doing whatever they were doing because he didn’t want to be seen as a white man being that finger pointer. Allegedly.”

Several thought he was rather dull, but for some this was a recommendation: “He seems quite careful, which is a good trait in a prime minister. I mean, Boris was very charismatic, and look how that turned out.” There was also scepticism about his claim to humble origins: “I’m sure I’ve heard him say that he was from the working class, and I don’t think he really is. You can’t kid people. People find out.”

Whatever their other reservations, most did not hold Starmer’s previous support for Jeremy Corbyn against him: “I don’t think it matters. I think we’re a long way past that;” “It was his job. That was what he was paid to do;” “In his defence, he said he only backed him because he knew he was going to lose;” “I think the real Keir Starmer is the one that wants power. And over the years the way to get that has changed.”


What matters is that they’ll try


Several said they feared a Labour government would raise spending, tax and debt (“look how many Labour councils have gone bankrupt through financial mismanagement”), be too soft on immigration or give too much power to the unions. Even so, several were prepared to give Labour the benefit of the doubt: “I’ve been so frustrated with the Conservatives that actually a change is needed. So I probably haven’t looked as deeply into Labour’s policies because of that;” “Labour are more inclined to spend money and resources on things than the Tories are. That’s not really a good reason to be saying you trust somebody, but that’s probably the only thing that tips the scale slightly for me;” “I don’t believe any of the parties will deliver their policies, but I believe that, this time round, Labour’s intentions are better;” “What matters is that they’ll try. The last 14 years haven’t been brilliant. Labour will just completely start fresh;” “It’s like someone saying ‘I’ll drive everyone to Cornwall’ and their car might not even start. It might not have enough fuel, it might have the engine light on, it might have a flat tyre. You’re not going to know until you get in and start it up and drive it down the road. And I think the country’s like that now. They’ll maybe do a third of what they say.”

Some were warily looking at Nigel Farage and Reform UK: “I think he’s unpredictable. A loose cannon;” “I think he’s quite a force to be reckoned with. He thinks he’s going to be in charge of the country. He opposes immigration, but I don’t know what he intends to do about it;” “Out of all three of them, if Nigel Farage was voted into power, I think he would be the one that got things done. If he said he were going to do it, he’d do it, I think;” “I don’t think Reform have the experience. Even if they’ve got the right policies, I don’t think they’ve got the experience in the House of Commons to do what they say they’re going to do;” “One minute he’s not standing, the next minute he’s standing. So can he change his mind if he’s voted in? I don’t feel he’s a hundred per cent reliable, to be honest.”

The groups also managed to spare some scepticism for the Reform manifesto, or “contract”: “It’s the biggest wish-list you’ve ever seen in your life, isn’t it? When you look at what they’re promising, if they were going to deliver it all, it would be absolutely fantastic. But let’s be honest, we know his agenda is stopping foreigners being in the country;” “£50 billion is a lot to be saving on waste. It sounds like the millions a week going to Europe that we could spend on the NHS;” “If he’s identified £50 billion worth of waste, surely he should put it back into public services rather than cutting inheritance tax.”


Prestigious body but no guts


Finally, if the party leaders were cars, what kind of car would they be? “Nigel Farage would be a classic Triumph Dolomite with brown leather seats. Cigar-smelling. No seatbelts. Five and drive from the pub;” “A Hillman Imp. The green one with wooden sides down it;” “The one out of Only Fools and Horses, a plastic Robin Reliant;” “A Porschey-type car, flashy but a horrible drive. Looks good but if you’re going from one end of the M6 to the other, you’d rather be in an Audi. All talk and no trousers;” “A rusty old Jag;” “A Land Rover. Rough and ready. It can drive over anything or anyone to get where he wants;” “A tank, leaving a trail of destruction behind it;” “A transit van, loaded full of crap.”

How about Rishi Sunak? “A Mini Cooper. Small and mighty;” “An Alfa Romeo. Hardly anyone’s got one and they’re not reliable. But they think they’re posher than the rest of the cars;” “A Fiat Panda. Little and square;” “A BMW. Prestigious body but no guts;” “A Rolls-Royce with tinted windows. Looks good but you’re not looking out, just sneering above everyone. With bulletproof windows and his little Sky TV in the dash to make up for lost time.”

What about Keir Starmer? “Well it couldn’t be an open-topped car because it would ruin his hair;” “Something you’d get from a used car salesman with no guarantee;” “Something boring like a Nissan Micra or a Fiesta. Something you get when you first pass;” “An electric Toyota. The opposite of whatever Rishi’s doing;” “Oh he’s got two. A Ford because he’s a man of the people, but he’s also got a Bugatti somewhere that’s registered to his wife.”

And Ed Davey? “Just a bog-standard car that you’d just drive past and not know someone important was in it;” “He’d actually be in a boat. But he’d fall out.”

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