Deborah Mattinson: How we uncovered Labour's quinoa quandry
Labour has evolved from being the party of casseroles and bingo to the party of quinoa and student protests, according to recent research by Britain Thinks.
As we approach party conference season, the polls remain stubbornly neck and neck, with both Tories and Labour around the 40% mark, each struggling to break into a clear lead. To understand what lies behind this deadlock, and, crucially, what either party might do to move ahead, BritainThinks ran qualitative workshops with swing voters in Crewe and Thurrock as well as a nationally representative poll of 2,000+ people.
We found the national mood to be anxious, confusing and uncertain, with voters’ top concerns focussed on perceptions of a declining NHS, rising crime – especially street crime, housing shortages, underfunded and over-crowded schools, and a vulnerable economy and that is before people even start talking about Brexit.
Against this backdrop 4 out of 10 do not feel well represented by our politicians – in fact only 5% say they feel very well represented – and ‘Don’t Know’ continues to beat both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as preferred PM. Voters were intensely critical of both leaders, and frustrated that they do not seem to be rising to the occasion. A 32 year old man in Crewe summed it up: “I feel really quite angry. We’ve got all these problems and they’re just playing politics”, while a 60 year old in Thurrock told us “I feel like the whole country is divided and neither party has come up with a good suggestion that works for everybody”.
Looking at how the parties were perceived, we found the Tory brand was the most consistent – unchanged in decades – it’s “posh” (people who eat quail and pheasant: who live in a country house and play polo…) but it’s also professional, the party both of high earners and the middle classes.
Labour, on the other hand was a brand transformed. Once the party of cloth caps, bingo and pie and a pint, it’s now seen as the party of hippy students whose idea of fun is going on a demo and who drink expensive designer beer and eat quinoa. Our swing voters, many of whom were past Labour voters, were simply baffled about who Labour now represents. One young woman, a care worker from Crewe observed “I don’t think Labour now stands for the kinds of values that it stood for when I was a child. I just don’t think they represent me as a working-class person”
Neither party is currently seen as ‘the party for me’ and both are wracked by infighting. Just 12% say the Tories are united and 14% judge Labour to be so. Voters evidence this view talking about an epidemic of resignations from the Tory front bench while Labour fails to contain the anti-semitism row that engulfed it throughout the summer.
Turning to how both parties might break the deadlock does not offer very straightforward solutions for either. It seems that they will be judged quite differently: for the Tories it is much more about concrete delivery: of course on Brexit, but also on public services - especially the NHS – when asked which of a number of interventions would increase the likelihood of voting Tory, increasing investment in the NHS was the highest score at net 40% - some 30% ahead of other options.
For Labour, the solutions turn the spotlight on the party ‘brand’ itself: Labour’s highest score, albeit a less convincing 14%, is for ‘replacing Jeremy Corbyn as leader’, yet while the least attractive ‘fix’ with a net negative score of 22% is “moving further to the left” ‘moving closer to the centre ground of politics’ does not shift the dial either way.
Tellingly, during the workshops few had a sense of which of the current crop of Labour politicians would provide a better option than Corbyn. It seems Labour’s challenge is more about addressing those deep rooted identity problems.
Picture credit: PA