James Frayne: Labour is competitive despite Jeremy Corbyn
And nine other interesting findings from political focus groups in 2017.
Over the last six months, I’ve conducted dozens of focus groups on a range of political and commercial issues (with dozens more to follow in the New Year). Each group was narrowly focused but participants invariably shifted discussions to the state of the country and the changing political scene. I'm a firm believer in the power of polling, but focus groups throw up unique insights polls don’t pick up. These qualitative insights help explain the meaning behind the polls, but also help us anticipate where they’re likely to move. With this in mind, respecting client confidentiality, here's a broad summary of those conversations in the round - things that you don't always see played out in the media.
1. Labour is competitive despite Corbyn
The idea that Corbyn’s critique of the country is cutting through is laughable. To most voters, he’s a bit of a joke. Labour are competitive despite Corbyn – and they’re competitive because of the legacy power of the Labour brand on key issues like healthcare and housing, and also because Labour have created and marketed so many retail policies (which, to be fair, has occurred under Corbyn's leadership). Most swing voters aren’t persuaded by the case for near-revolution; but they are persuaded by more money for the NHS, opposition to so-called education cuts, and changes to tuition fees.
2. The Conservatives have no fundamental brand problem
Those Conservatives in despair about the lack of vision from the Party should relax: there’s no existential brand problem for the Conservatives. In dozens of conversations with swing voters, there’s no evidence of real animosity – unlike in the early 2000s. We agree with Conservative strategists that their motives are often questioned – they’re not seen as "caring", for example – but under David Cameron and Theresa May they’re seen as being competent and in the mainstream. The real problem, healthcare aside, is that few people can think of positive reasons to get out and vote Conservative – they just aren’t offering anyone any meaningful policies to improve their daily lives. This was the biggest problem with their recent election campaign - and remains so now.
3. People think the economy is fine
Many in the Conservative Party are convinced the public are obsessed about the unfairness of the modern economy – as if this was part of the explanation for Labour’s rise. In our experience, very, very few people talk about the economy in this way: hardly anyone whinges about banks and high salaries without prompting. In fact, most people in most parts of the country think the economy is doing “fine” – better than in the late 2000s. There are undoubtedly worries that Brexit might create problems – even amongst leave voters – but no panic (yet). Barring disaster, the Conservatives are likely to retain significant competitive advantage on the economy. Creating and promoting ideas to remake capitalism - as some Conservatives are advocating - would be pointless and counter-productive.
4. Brexit changes the way big businesses are perceived
When asked, most people say they don’t like big businesses very much – but only when asked. For the most part, they don’t raise the issue. Furthermore, it’s clear people’s fears about the effects of Brexit on the economy (and this includes leave voters) mean they’re very worried about big businesses leaving the country. Brexit is therefore changing the way people view big firms; while they’re never going to be loved, now commentators are talking about them leaving, there’s been a great injection of reality into people’s thinking. This is another reason why the Corbyn critique isn’t going to cut through in any meaningful way, and why the Conservatives should stop obsessing about a supposed leftward shift.
5. Brexit voters remain very committed to their leave vote
Despite leave voters’ concerns about the potential impact on the economy, and despite the appalling negative coverage of the leave vote since the referendum, Brexit voters aren’t showing any real signs of remorse. Quite the opposite: they’re extremely pleased they made the decision they did. The polls suggest the leave vote has stayed resolute; the focus groups confirm it.
6. The public is obsessed about healthcare
In practically every focus group on any issue, whether it's on the agenda for discussion or not, healthcare comes up immediately. People are extremely worried about the current state of the NHS and its future. While Conservatives are likely to blame large-scale immigration for pressures on the NHS, and while Labour voters are likely to blame “cuts”, all voters are united that something needs to be done – and that “something” usually revolves around money. As noted above, this helps explain why Labour continues to ride high in the polls – people simply believe Labour takes the NHS more seriously. And who can blame the voters? The Conservatives have practically nothing to say on the issue. If they’re not careful, they’ll pay for this. (Incidentally, if the Conservatives are worried about their deficit on being "caring", health should be their focus.)
7. The public remain very tough on welfare
Another issue that comes up all the time is welfare. It’s no simplification to say that the public are eye-wateringly tough on welfare – and if anything getting tougher. Many Conservatives worried about the impact of universal credit. While some aspects of the policy roll-out will have concerned some people, rightly or wrongly there’s a limit to how badly a perceived very tough welfare policy is going to go down. The issue of welfare isn’t going anywhere in the public mind; it’s here to stay.
8. There’s currently little interest in security policy
Ten years ago, when Britain was coming to terms with an increase in terrorism from extreme Islamists, the public appeared to be shocked and seething with anger. At this point in time, they’re not. They seem to have accepted that it’s a problem that’s here to stay and that probably won’t affect them personally if they’re careful. This will surely change but, for better or ill, there’s no mileage at the moment in politicians turning the terror threat into a discussion on the future of the country.
9. The old don’t accept they’re the problem
It has become increasingly common for politicians and commentators to criticise the attitudes, behaviour and lifestyle of the “baby boomers”, who are now entering old age. These people, the narrative goes, have enjoyed great advantages the young can only dream of: big houses with low mortgages; pensions; great healthcare etc. Politicians that push this narrative should be very careful. To say the baby boomers don’t accept this would be an understatement. They point to the endless series of recessions they lived through – which brought sky-high interest rates, negative equity, and mass unemployment. They don’t think they had it easy and they have a case.
10. The BBC is getting stronger, not weaker
Finally, a note on the media. We know newspaper circulation is going down but one by-product is the growing power of the BBC. Whereas fifteen years ago, people were likely to talk about the newspapers they read, now it’s all about the BBC website, apps and TV. From the focus groups, the BBC is gaining more and more power. Anyone that wants to influence the public through earned media should overwhelmingly prioritise the BBC.