My general election focus group tour has begun with a look at three heavily remain-voting constituencies that the newly confident Liberal Democrats hope to take next month: Cambridge, which they aim to win from Labour, and Finchley & Golders Green and Richmond Park, both of which they hope to take back from the Conservatives.
‘A bit tantrummy’
There was not a great deal of excitement about the prospect of going to the polls again, and some doubted it was even necessary: “It’s a kind of vanity election. I think he was so annoyed he threw his toys out of the pram and said ‘right, let’s call their bluff, let’s call an election.’ I think he could have swallowed his pride and pushed that legislation through”; “He wants to know he was voted in by the people. He is quite an egomaniac so he needs to know that”; “It seemed a bit tantrummy.”
But most conceded that with Parliament as it was – and a Prime Minister chosen by his party rather than the wider electorate – an election was the only way to break the deadlock and move forward: “There are alliances that can block anyone else’s ideas”; “He has no mandate and he needs one”; “People are sick and tired of the to-ing and fro-ing and blaming each other”; “It’s probably the only chance of meaningful change.”
Whether meaningful change was what they were going to get was a different question. The balance of opinion at this stage was that we would have either another hung parliament or a Conservative majority – a particularly prevalent view among Labour-leaning remain voters:
“I’m worried. The Tories could get back in again, which would confirm a lot of awful stuff about the country”; “I’m originally from a mining town which would never vote Conservative, and working class people are very despondent with Labour and just love Boris. People reading the Sun and just believing the media is quite scary”; “I’m half dreading it because I know the way the country is going to vote.”
‘It’s about values’
Though most people thought Brexit would inevitably dominate the debate, most regretted the prospect – remain-voting former Labour voters most of all: “There has been cut after cut. I see people queueing outside A&E at two in the afternoon because there is no mental health provision in the county”; “We have some deep wounds in the country, like one in four children below the poverty line, council housing, the list goes on and on. Everyone is focusing on Brexit but there is a whole group of people who things are getting worse and worse for. And I don’t think there’s one party at the moment who really cares about Britain, it’s just who looks like they come out best from the whole Brexit thing”; “It’s mainly Brexit but people who don’t want the Tories want it to be about so much more”; “People should look at other issues that are more important. Brexit will be done in a year and then there will be four more after that, and if the Tories get in, bloody hell.”
‘I don’t know if it’s going to work, but it sounds good’
As is often the case, an array of what seemed to them to be peripheral events had caught people’s attention in the early days of the campaign.
“Lots of resignations. Ian Austin came out and slagged off Jeremy Corbyn and said ‘vote Tory’”; “Labour’s deputy leader is becoming a gym instructor. That’s quite a strange one”; “The government pledged they would build a certain amount of starter homes but built none”; “A lot of wheeler-dealing behind the scenes with parties saying they’re not standing in certain places because they won’t get in”; “Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments about Grenfell”; “Nigel Farage crops up whether you want him to or not”; “Labour want a four-day week. I don’t know if it’s going to work, but it sounds good”; “The Tories talked about banning fracking but that was just a ploy. I don’t believe it”; “Labour want to put the minimum wage up to £10, which is brilliant for me. I can’t really afford to live in Cambridge”; “The government blocked a report into Russian meddling until after the election. What information is in there that people should know about?”
‘It doesn’t feel right’
Amid such a haphazard selection of news, Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats had made the most progress in cutting through with a single overarching message – for good or ill.
Some welcomed their unambiguous anti-Brexit stance: “It’s good that she’s standing for something else. Obviously, the Tories want to see it through, Labour don’t want to see it through except they’re led by someone who is actually a staunch Brexiteer, so the Lib Dems are saying ‘this is what we stand for’”; “She’s brave. She’s saying ‘sod it, let’s forget this nonsense ever happened’.”
But most people in our remain-voting groups, including some 2017 Lib Dems, were at least uneasy about the party’s policy of simply revoking Article 50: “You can never go back to how it was. You have to accept that people voted to leave. I have family in Europe and was devastated by the result, but I just wonder whether, as a democracy, it would cause more resentment and more issues”; “We’d have riots in the streets. It would be dangerous. To resolve it we need to put it to a vote”; “It doesn’t feel right.” Or to put it another way, “she’s saying ‘go f*** your vote.’ That’s how she comes across to me.”
There might also be a practical problem: “What terms will we have with the EU if we revoke Article 50? They have said we can come back at any time, which is very nice of them, but on what terms? They don’t have to give us our old terms, they’re under no obligation to do that at all. Are we going to have to join the euro?”
‘She seems quite right wing’
Partly for these reasons, the idea of anti-Brexit Labour voters shifting en masse to the Lib Dems seems, at this stage, to work better in theory than in practice. Tempted as they might otherwise be to vote for country’s leading party of remain, as it ungrammatically describes itself, many still feel they were badly stung by the experience of 2010 and are reluctant to trust the party again:
“I really want to like her. But I still can’t forgive the Lib Dems for the coalition. I voted Lib Dem in that election and they ended up in David Cameron’s government. It’s not what you vote Lib Dem for”; “I’m in £50,000 of debt because of them”; “I was a student in that election and a lot of my friends voted for them, and they were quite sore about that”; “I can’t trust them. Where I lived before they had two separate flyers, an anti-war one for the Muslim streets and an anti-immigration one for the white streets”.
Some distrusted the party so much they feared they might once again support a Conservative government despite their apparently irreconcilable policies on Brexit: “Her voting record is very negative. She seems quite right-wing for a Lib Dem”; “I think the Lib Dems will do a deal behind the scenes”; “I have a horrible feeling she is prepared to go into government with the Tories… She said she wouldn’t but I don’t believe anything now, because people are pursuing power.”
There was also a feeling among many Labour Remainers in that a vote for the Lib Dems to stop Brexit was, as they might once have put it, a deviation from the class struggle. Important though Brexit was, “getting the Conservatives out and Labour back in should be focus – things that will help real people in the real world”; “It would be a wasted vote. If their presence was already stronger or if suddenly in the next month they turn it round, I will consider it”; “It’s the party’s policies and how they represent you as a person, not one thing.”
In Finchley, a number of both former Conservative and Labour voters were debating whether to stay put or switch to the Lib Dems. However, this was nearly always because of the party’s candidate, the former Labour MP Luciana Berger. Most on both sides also had a high regard for Tory MP Mike Freer, but many now felt torn between national priorities and a new local candidate they admired:
“I think she’s done an amazing job. Whether you vote for her or not, she’s stood by her values, leaving a party she joined in her student days. I think that says a lot about who she is as a person”; “I’m really undecided because I would worry about the bigger picture, the Conservatives losing a seat. But I partly feel that I have to support her, not because she’s Jewish but because of what she did, she stood up and was honest and put up with so much abuse, and she’s still come back and I feel that I have to support that;” “I’m fifty-fifty with Labour. I’m considering the Lib Dems because of Luciana, but that’s the only reason.”
For some former Labour voters in the constituency, disillusionment with Jeremy Corbyn added to this quandary: “He’s too far left. And I want to say this without sounding ageist, but he doesn’t seem in his prime;” “I was always very pro-Labour but quite often I feel like his understanding of the issues and his commentary is quite limited in comparison with previous leaders. He’s very good at giving soundbites on what schools and public services need but I’ve yet to hear him give a real in-depth answer. And I listen to my Jewish friends talk about how you want a party leader to deal decisively with any sort of discrimination, and I think ‘how can I vote for someone who can’t even tackle hate within their own party?’”
‘A bit Trumpy for me’
Previous Tory voters in Finchley and Richmond were not wildly enthusiastic in their praise for Boris Johnson: “He talks a big talk, doesn’t he, and then it’s as if you’re just supposed to forget the things he said. October 31st, or whatever. But I wasn’t disappointed because I felt like it was a ridiculous thing to promise in the first place;” “I think he’s an idiot but his enthusiasm is infectious;” “He’s a bit Trumpy for me.”
Many also felt the Conservative Party had taken a turn for the worse in recent years: “It used to be that with the Tories you knew what you were going to get – stoic, look after yourself, manage your own life. You don’t get that any more;” “Now it’s like a cartoonist’s impression of what conservatism is. Boris, Gove, Rees-Mogg – a boy’s club, so outdated, not representative at all of where we are as a country;” “The Conservatives used to be substance over style, now it’s style over substance.”
Even so, most were united in horror at the idea of a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn, and most thought the risks of Brexit paled in comparison to the dangers of Corbyn as Prime Minister: “He’s delusional. He’s living in the wrong century;” “You could have the best Labour MP in the world standing and I would never vote Labour with Corbyn as leader because he’s an anti-Semite. A vote for him is a vote for extremism;” “He’s bordering on communism.”
Some former Tories in Finchley also felt a dilemma: “The only thing that would sway my vote is if I felt it was safe to vote for Luciana. The thing stopping me voting for her is the fear of Jeremy Corbyn getting in. If I was feeling confident that he’s so far behind in the polls that there’s no chance he could get into power, I’d go with my hope rather than my head. My head is telling me, vote Conservative, my heart is telling me, actually, I’m going to vote for someone I believe in.”
In Richmond, the fear of depriving the Conservatives of a seat and thereby making a Corbyn premiership more likely was a consideration for many 2017 Tories. Only two in the group of ten said they were seriously considering a switch to the Lib Dems – but since only 23 need to do so in the whole constituency for the seat to change hands, the party may not find that particularly reassuring.
A final quickfire round. What do we actually know about the leaders? Impressions of Jo Swinson remained sketchy: “Er, she’s a lady;” “Has a young child;” “Was a junior minister in the coalition;” “Has a Labrador.”
Boris? “Lives in Islington;” “Had a big fight with his girlfriend;” “Went to Eton;” “Doesn’t know how many children he has;” “Lied to the Queen;” “Wrote a novel called Seventy-Two Virgins;” “There was a scandal with a pig.” How will you feel if you wake up on 13th December and he’s still Prime Minister? “Thank God;” “Well, here we are again;” “There will be riots outside the Co-op. I might even be there;” “I’d go to Europe like a shot, but we won’t be allowed to.”
And Mr. Corbyn? “Went to Glastonbury;” “Has an allotment;” “He cycles everywhere;” “Vegetarian;” “He had a thing with Diane Abbott. A tryst, I think they called it;” “Went to a private school;” “He has a cat called El Gato who comes when he sings Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree.”