In vino veritas? Vox Pub spoke to drinkers in five constituencies during the general election campaign, to see which way opinion was moving. Did these drinkers offer a truthful indication of the final result?
The first visit, to West Bromwich, just over five weeks before polling day, was the most illuminating, for it showed that at this early stage Labour was already in desperate trouble. A woman in her forties who had “never been for the Conservatives” and always been “for the people” told Vox Pub:
“I will definitely vote for Boris, liar, cheat and fool! And for Brexit! I want to get out.”
A man, a bus driver, declared:
“Mr Boris Johnson, I like him. OK, he’s had a bit of argy-bargy with his other half, but that’s water under the bridge.
“Boris is having my vote without a shadow of a doubt. Round here, they’re all swinging to the Conservatives.
“It needs someone to kick Mr Watson [the local MP] off his pedestal.”
Tom Watson, who in 2017 held West Bromwich East for Labour with a majority of 7,713, did not wait to be kicked off his pedestal, but announced a day or two later he would not be standing again.
On 12th December, West Bromwich East was won by Nicola Richards for the Conservatives with a majority of 1,593, while in West Bromwich West a Labour majority of 4,460 became a Tory majority of 3,799. Vox Pub had noted on 6th November the passions which led to these results:
“Opinion polls tell us that Johnson is more popular than Corbyn. But what the polls cannot convey is the way people talk about Johnson, or the strength of their feeling about him and about the cause which for them he represents.
“These voters do not regard the Prime Minister as a saint. But they do regard him as the strongest champion for Brexit, a cause dear to them, and one which they are enraged to see other politicians deserting.”
The second visit, to Penzance, a month before polling day, revealed the desperate perplexity of Liberal Democrat voters in Cornwall who support Brexit.
Penzance is the largest town in St Ives, a constituency held by Derek Thomas for the Conservatives in 2017 with a majority of 312 over the Liberal Democrat candidate, Andrew George, who had himself been the MP from 1997-2015.
George was regarded as an admirable local representative, and was standing again this time. His problem was that the Liberal Democrats at national level had promised to revoke Brexit without even holding a referendum.
So many drinkers expressed their esteem for George that it was clear he might still win. But there was also a yearning in West Cornwall for a government that would actually get Brexit done. In the words of a fisherman who had stayed up all night with the skipper of his boat, the Ajax, watching the referendum result in 2016:
“All I want is can we please have a government that has some backbone. This whole Brexit has been an embarrassment. We look weak on the world stage.”
In the end, the desire for a strong Brexit government outweighed the respect felt for George, who lost by 4,284 votes. How infuriated he and other defeated West Country Lib Dems must feel with the national party.
The third visit, to Stirling, gave a completely misleading impression of how things would unfold there. In 2017 Stephen Kerr, for the Conservatives, won Stirling by 148 votes from the SNP.
Vox Pub reported, on the basis of conversations in two pubs at either end of the Raploch council housing estate, that the SNP “is losing support to both Labour and the Conservatives”.
This was wrong. The SNP won Stirling by 9,254 votes, with Conservative support down by only 650 votes, but Labour (which held Stirling from 1997-2015) falling from nearly 11,000 votes to only just over 4,000.
Vox Pub failed to pick this up. Instead of the Conservatives winning by entrenching themselves as the main Unionist party, the SNP won by entrenching themselves as the main anti-Conservative party.
The fourth report, from Bolton, just over a fortnight before polling day, provided an accurate account of how the election would play out there. In 2013, this site called for “a Conservatism for Bolton West”, a seat then held by Labour with a majority of 92.
In 2015, Chris Green won Bolton West for the Conservatives by 801 votes, which he increased to the still slender majority of 936 votes in 2017.
How much happier Green looked when ConHome met him during the 2019 campaign, for as he himself said:
“In 2017, the feedback was very positive, there were a significant number of Labour switchers, but then when things went wrong with the manifesto, the switchers were pushed away, we almost told those voters, ‘We don’t want your support.’
“Whereas this time so far we’ve been able to hold onto them.”
It became clear, after a number of conversations, not just that Green would hold Bolton West, but that the Conservatives were on course to gain another of the three Bolton seats:
“In Bolton, the Conservative vote is holding firm and the Labour vote is soft. If these trends continue until polling day, the Tories have good chances of taking Bolton North East.”
In the event, Green’s majority in Bolton West increased to 8,855, while Labour’s majority of 3,797 in Bolton North East was turned into a Conservative majority of 378.
The fifth and final outing, just over a week before polling day, was to Pimlico, in Cities of London and Westminster, where Chuka Umunna, a prominent Labour defector, was standing for the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives were defending a majority from 2017 of only 3,148.
Vox Pub found no evidence either that Umunna was breaking through, or that Labour was mounting a credible challenge. A voter who had arrived in London from Longford, in the Irish Republic, at the age of 17 said:
“I came over for a wedding and I got married myself.
“I worked in the gas all my life, saving lives. There were no f—ing foreigners around then. The Paddies had to do everything. I worked all my life, I worked my bollocks off, I never got time to get f—ing sick, not when you had to put the rent on the table.”
ConHome: “Who will you vote for in the election?”
The Irishman: “I’ve always voted Labour but the moment I saw Jeremy Corbyn I said no.
“I stopped voting for Labour when they sold off all the gold. The next thing you know they’ll be selling us down the river. They nearly bankrupted the country. You’ve got to vote for the Conservative.”
Labour had no economic credibility, and Nickie Aiken proceeded to win Cities of London and Westminster for the Conservatives by 3,943 votes, with Umunna in second place and Labour 1,472 votes behind him. But for that almost even split in the Opposition vote, the Conservatives would have been in trouble.
Vox Pub saw how four of these five contests could be expected to play out. Only in Scotland did we miss what was happening.
There is a warning here for English Conservatives, repeated a few days ago on ConHome by Andy Maciver. It is all too easy for a visitor from London to Scotland to fail to see what is going on, and to take an unduly optimistic view of Conservative prospects.