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Last week my election focus groups took us to three constituencies the Liberal Democrats were hoping to corner the market in disgruntled remainers. This week we have visited three Labour-held, Leave-voting seats of the kind the Conservatives are looking to regain in their quest for a majority: Stoke-on-Trent North, Bolton North East, and the seat held until recently by Labour’s deputy leader, West Bromwich East.

Oven-ready

Boris Johnson’s opening election broadcast, ostensibly filmed during his tea break at CCHQ, had garnered an unusual degree of attention. “I thought it was for Children in Need;” “I thought it was a joke at first, but some people will like that;” “He put the milk in before taking the teabag out!” “He said, ‘our deal is oven-ready, sling it in the microwave,’ and I thought, you’ve never cooked a thing in your life, mate, have you?”

Remembrance Day was mentioned several times: “I saw something about what Jeremy Corbyn was wearing. Who cares what he wears?” “They said he didn’t go to the meal afterwards, but he actually stayed behind and spoke to the veterans rather than going and drinking champagne;” “Boris put the wreath upside down, so the BBC showed last year’s coverage to save face.”

Some participants had noticed the Brexit Party’s machinations: “Nigel Farage is back on the scene again;” “Didn’t he just basically say he was going to work for the Tories?” “He’s now not going to nick any seats off the Conservatives. He’s charged these people something like £500 to sit in these seats, and there’s a good number of them now not being allowed to sit, and they haven’t been given their £500 back. They’ve basically been told to piss off.”

What else has been going on? “When there were floods in Yorkshire, Boris Johnson turned up about a week too late because the army’s gone in and everything, and one lady said ‘I don’t want to speak to you because you’re not interested in us’. If it had been closer to his community, he would have been active a lot quicker;” “The Grenfell Tower stuff, the Tories blaming the fire service with the report than came out;” “Rees-Mogg and Grenfell. ‘I’d have left and aren’t I smart.’ How he is elected is beyond me.”

Our West Bromwich groups had noted the departure of Tom Watson, who most thought was a well-liked local MP, as well as a reassuring presence in the Labour Party: “He was quite a good balance to Corbyn. He was more towards the centre;” “He’s had previous with Jeremy Corbyn, so he’s stabbed him in the back;” “A lot of toys are being thrown out of the pram by all of them.” “Ian Austin said don’t vote Labour, but they said he was being paid by the Tories.” Have you heard of David Gauke? “Yes, but I couldn’t tell you what he does;” “I think he was on Breakfast but I was feeding the dog and putting my shoe on at the same time.”

‘Who’s going to pay me for a four-day week?’

And this week’s policy news? “Promises on the health service, which I don’t believe;” “Labour said something about bringing back bursaries for nurses. I don’t think they’ll do it, but it was nice that they thought of it;” “There was something about a Russian file that they won’t release until after the election. It makes him sound a bit Trumpish;” “Corbyn is trying to get McDonald’s workers up to £15 an hour! If they do that, the price of food goes up, people don’t go into McDonald’s anymore and people lose their jobs;” “It’s more than half the people on the front line in the public sector;” “Just the money, Corbyn promising so many billion. They’ll put another note in at the end of the term, and say ‘sorry, there’s no money left’,” “Labour want to raise the Corporation Tax, don’t they. Businesses will just move. There will already be a cost with Brexit, so if you then raise Corporation Tax, what incentive is there for any company to stay in this country?” “The four-day week. I can get behind that;” “It’s all well and good if you’re not self-employed. Who’s going to pay me for a four-day week?” “I’m a business owner. If my staff come to me and say ‘Jeremy Corbyn says I only have to work four days,’ well, you’re no use to me.”

‘A bit of raspberry ripple’

Whoever they had backed in 2017, our participants essentially divided into those who thought about the election in terms of Brexit, and those who did not. The first group were leaning towards the Tories: “I’m not a massive fan of Boris Johnson but there is more chance of him actually delivering Brexit. It needs to be done and sorted and we can move on from there;” “He’s the strongest voice we’ve seen for a long time. At least he sticks to his guns;” “Things are stagnating, the whole political system is in limbo. At least if he wins the election he will have some power;” “I’m a railway worker, we’re on strike Saturday, Labour stand for trade unions, but I’m still undecided. I’m probably leaning Conservative, even though it’s against everything I’ve stood for;” “That’s the Catch 22 – we voted Leave but we also voted Labour, but voting Labour is saying we want that referendum again.”

The Labour Party in its current guise made this decision easier for some: “He sounded genuine but he’s been weak and waffly. He’s promising things that don’t exist. And his past association with the IRA hasn’t gone down well with people;” “I don’t mind him. It’s Diane Abbott that scares me;” “There was that Jewish thing going on. That was a bit worrying, wasn’t it;” “There’s a divide – you’ve got the people who want to follow Corbyn and his mantra, and then you’ve got the ones who, well, I’m not quite sure what they want but they don’t want him there;” “Laying wreaths on dead terrorists’ graves. The guy is dangerous;” “He’s got no aura, which Boris has. Leading the country, you can’t just be vanilla, you have to have something about you. You’ve got to have a bit of raspberry ripple.”

‘What’s the worst that could happen?’

The thoughts of those – including Leave voters, and even some 2017 Conservatives – for whom Brexit is not the main priority illustrate that taking these seats from Labour is by no means a done deal for the Tories.

With echoes of the last election, austerity still loomed large in these voters’ minds: “Last month my daughter had a ten-hour wait in a corridor and then needed an emergency operation. There’s no funding, they haven’t got enough staff, enough beds, so that’s the priority. Unless you’ve got private health insurance, you’ve had it;” “We’re still £22 trillion in debt, so the cuts didn’t benefit us in any shape or form, because although the debt may have been reduced slightly, we’ve lost all our services. There were Sure Start centres built, and as soon as the Conservatives got in they shut them all down;” “Me and my husband haven’t had a pay rise for six years. We’re doing jobs that are helping people but our lifestyle is going down;” “In Bolton there are five thousand outstanding crimes and not enough police;” “Food banks, the NHS – I’m fed up with walking round Birmingham and seeing people sleeping rough and social issues not being dealt with.”

Conservative promises on extra funding for public services carried little weight with this people: “They’ve cut too deep and now they’re saying they’ll give you a little bit back, and it doesn’t wash with me.”

“Trump’s put something on the table about privatising it, some massive drugs deal.” And some said the party was a less attractive proposition now than in the pre-Brexit years: “When you think of what Jacob Rees-Mogg said about Grenfell, you can’t imagine any Tory MP having said that under David Cameron,” “They’re showing their true colours now, very elitist, for themselves;” “I think they’re a bit detached from reality. They understand the higher class in the UK, but they probably can’t get their heads round a town like Bolton;” “They just seem like they haven’t got a clue what’s going on. They’ve been like headless chickens in the last three years.”

All of this tended to push them back towards Labour, with all its faults: “There’s a lot I don’t agree with, and let’s be honest, they’re all in it for the same thing. But I think Labour will still be for the working man and will save the NHS and bring back more police;” “I was never 100 per cent happy with Jeremy Corbyn, I don’t think his maths add up and I don’t think what he says is going to be feasible, but I’ll do anything to stop the NHS being privatised;” “What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not going to turn into a communist country, and he’s not going to have a big majority.”

‘A proper nutcase’

Views of Nigel Farage, meanwhile, were mixed: “Last time he had us all voting out, and then where was he? Sitting in the European Parliament!” “He’s never had a proper job really, has he?” “Have you ever seen videos of him in there, though, in the European thingy? Oh my God, it’s hilarious. He proper rips through them;” “He comes in on whatever’s popular, and as soon as it ends, he’s off;” “He just loves the limelight;” “I do sometimes think, oh mate, come on now, that’s enough;” “He’s a proper nutcase and he likes to upset people. I quite like him.”

But despite the pro-Brexit, anti-Tory dilemma that afflicted many in our groups, few were considering the Brexit Party at this stage. Often, this was simply because they considered a vote for a small party to be wasted: “It’s between red and blue this time. You pick the lesser of two evils and go with one of them.”

The focus on the mechanics of where the party would stand meant it had not yet established itself as a credible alternative: “They don’t have any other policies. No-one knows enough about them;” “They’ve come out and said, yeah, we’re Tory aren’t we really;” “From what I’ve read, he would give his votes to the Conservatives anyway, and it would still leave Boris Johnson in Downing Street. He just wants to steal the Labour vote so the Conservatives get the most votes and get in;” “I don’t know anything about them. Is it another UKIP?”

And finally

What would Jeremy Corbyn do if he found himself with an unexpectedly free Friday night? “He’d go outside in the garden and sit on the fence all night;” “Scrolling through Twitter, saying ‘I’m really very nice!’;” “A nice sit-down dinner with someone who doesn’t like Britain;” “I can’t see him going out on the town. He’d get his pencil out and start writing. Working out a way to scrap Trident.”

What about Boris Johnson? “You know he’s going to get up to something;” “On the razz. Goes down Wetherspoons, or the casino;” “Shags his secretary;” ‘A bit of a messy night out. It wouldn’t be civilised. I think there would be apologies the next morning.”

How about Jo Swinson? “Shopping online;” “Watching Gogglebox;” “Plotting how to stay in Europe;” “Well she’s a Lib Dem, so a really nice restaurant made of recycled paper, or something.”

And Nigel Farage? “Out with his crackpot friends. In the pub with his wellies on;” “He’d go to the casino with Boris. He’d carry his drinks for him;” “It would be party time. He’d go crazy, like Prince Harry used to do;” “He’d be on the piss with his dog.” Would the dog be drinking too? “I wouldn’t put it past him.”

114 comments for: Lord Ashcroft: My next three focus groups in Labour-held, Leave voting constituencies

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