POLITICS

Analysis: What Slough's HuffPost UK-Edelman Focus Group Tells Us About Labour

Will the seat turn blue for the first time since 1997?

29/04/2017 11:29 BST | Updated 29/04/2017 14:02 BST
HuffPost UK
HuffPost UK

“I’m a Labour supporter, always have been,” said Ricky, an HGV driver. “But I’ll vote Conservative to get Jeremy Corbyn out.”

Like several of our focus group, Ricky had a visceral dislike of Labour’s leader - in a seat that has been held by the party since Tony Blair’s landslide of 1997.

When Slough’s long-serving Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart announced she was quitting this month, she said one of the reasons was she was “bored by political squabbles over personalities”.

Yet it’s Corbyn’s personality, as well as his values, that appears to be driving key voters to the Conservatives in the 2017 general election.

Our HuffPost UK-Edelman focus group was drafted to include people who identified themselves as ‘working class’ and struggling to make ends meet. They are what Theresa May calls ‘ordinary working families’. When asked about the phrase ‘JAMS’, the Whitehall label for the ‘just about managing’ classes, all of them looked blank.

The political danger for Corbyn is that there is a new acronym to which these people now belong: the ‘INLBs’ or ‘I’m Normally Labour But…’

And the ‘but’ is the leader himself. Corbyn invokes a variable mixture of ridicule, fear and indifference, all of which are toxic for any party. Dan, a plumber, was particularly exercised about Corbyn’s front garden, which he saw as a mess.

Several of our focus group participants stressed things like “my father and grandfather were Labour” or “we’ve always been a socialist family”.

The women in particular were worried about rising food bills, the state of the NHS and school cuts.

Yet one after another said they were now considering the Tories, despite still seeing them as the party of “the upper classes”.

In fact, the Slough gathering felt like a meeting of May-aholics Anonymous, with voters stepping up to say their name and admitting to their not-so-guilty secret.

The Prime Minister was most of all seen as the person to deliver Brexit. Louise, a training assessor, at one point asked “what’s that word they keep putting before Brexit?”. She meant ‘hard Brexit’, but in fact she and her fellow focus group members came up with a phrase that May could well herself copy: they wanted “a strong Brexit”.

Just as striking was the view of the men in the group that Brexit would be bumpy, but it was worth it in the ‘long term’. For both sexes, there was no sense of regret or turning back on last year’s historic decision and many just want it delivered.

Of course focus groups are a snapshot of a snapshot, and not meant to be a scientifically representative as opinion polls. But they give texture and colour to wider polling findings. (Note too that of the eight women, just three read a newspaper, all were on Facebook and just one on Twitter.)

One senior Labour Shadow Cabinet minister told HuffPost UK that much of the ‘INLB’ group is ‘soft’ in voting terms and believes that local candidates and campaigners can turn them round on the doorstep.

In Slough, the party’s majority was 7,336 in 2015. But the UKIP vote was 6,200 and with Paul Nuttall’s party seeing its national vote collapse, that makes even a seat like this a prime target for the Tories. It’s worth noting that before 1997, the Conservatives held the constituency for 14 years.

Some in the party hope that the large Asian community can turn out in their usual big numbers, and a locally-born Sikh, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, was selected as the candidate to replace Mactaggart this week.

But perhaps the most ominous remark of the entire focus group remains that of HGV driver Ricky. He says he will vote Tory with the sole intention of removing Corbyn as Labour leader.

That may not happen, even if there is a May landslide in June. Yet it’s proof that for Slough’s working class voters, they want to ‘take back control’ of Labour as much as their country.

HuffPost UK