Northern Labour voters are switching to Theresa May despite strong fears that they will be “disowned” by their friends and family for backing the Tories, the latest HuffPost UK-Edelman focus group has found.
Working class men and women in the swing marginal of Bury South revealed their agony in being seen to vote for the Conservatives after supporting Labour all their lives.
For many the social shame and embarrassment of voting Tory was evident, as were their heartfelt complaints about Government cuts to the NHS and public services.
Yet their deep dislike of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and mistrust of Labour’s economic record was pushing them to break with tradition with “heavy heart”.
The findings, part of HuffPost UK’s Beyond Brexit series, laid bare just how emotionally difficult it was for life-long Labour voters to switch sides.
Michelle, a school teacher and single mother, explained how she struggled to even write down the word ‘Conservative’ when asked how she would vote.
“The family, my mum, I feel like if I uttered those words in front of my mum, she’d disown me.
“I’m a teacher and Conservatives generally have always been for the elite. I teach special needs, I teach re-sits at GCSEs, kids who have been deemed failures their whole lives.
“So for me to even think about a party that has gone against everything that I’ve ever believed in, it is massive, a heavy heart.”
Jack, a young teacher, said the only reason he had voted Labour was “default”: “Default - just from voting last time, because my parents are very Labour and my grandparents were. It’s just not something I’ve done before, going to the Dark Side.”
Stuart, an account manager, said that he had stuck with Labour in the 2015 election despite disliking Ed Miliband, but was now ready to break his life-long habit of backing the party.
“I didn’t particularly like Ed Miliband but I was voting for Labour. That’s just through family and my dad like most of us. But a lot’s changed in the last four or five years. Theresa May doesn’t offend me to be honest, not yet.
“I can’t help thinking it’s more a case of Labour has imploded, which has made people probably think let’s trust the Conservatives and give them a chance.”
The Bury South focus group was conducted in conjunction with elections analyst Ian Warren, who blogs for HuffPost UK about just why Labour supporters feel so uncomfortable about saying they would vote Tory.
In West Yorkshire this week, Theresa May made a deliberate pitch to Brexit-supporting Labour voters to put aside “the old, tribal politics” and back her leadership in getting the right deal for the UK as it quits the EU in 2019.
And it appears that many of the messages in her election manifesto speech, about serving “the mainstream British public” to build “a great meritocracy”, were well aimed.
WE NEED A WOMAN
When the eight former Labour voters in the women’s focus group were asked how they would vote, they were unanimous in saying they would now back the Conservatives.
“I don’t want to, but Conservative,” said Michelle, a case worker for the Crown Prosecution Service. “It’s going against what you’ve always known.”
Dawn, who works in recruitment, said Labour had always been her family’s party. “It’s the working class. My family has always been working class and the Conservatives were always for the rich people.
“I think it’s slightly changing, I don’t think the Tories are just going to be concentrating on the rich. It might be mixing the blend a little bit and it’s not ‘us and them’ any more.”
She added: “We need a woman… to change the country.” Another of the mums in the group added: “I think she’s trying to appeal more to the middle. Certainly on childcare and things like that.”
A deep reluctance among some voters to admit to backing the Conservatives is often cited for opinion polls in 1992 and 2015 underestimating the party’s level of support,as ‘shy Tories’ refused to admit their intentions.
PAINFUL CUTS SEEN AS WORTH IT
Several members of the focus groups had personally suffered from Tory cuts since 2010, from public sector pay freezes, school budget reductions, NHS reforms and other changes.
Yet they felt that the pain of the cuts was worth it if the deficit was coming down, with many still distrusting Labour for spending too much and anxious that Brexit meant the need for greater security and stability.
Jo, who works with troubled youngsters and is married to a policeman, said: “I think it would be different if Brexit wasn’t happening and we weren’t leaving. I don’t know if I’d still be swinging Labour, but the concern is we need someone strong, very confident, very stable and very bolshie.”
She explained how public sector staff like her were under huge pressure. “Since the  election, we’ve had freezes on our pay rises, we’re upto now seven years, so we are now actually getting cuts.
“So I have gone down just over £250 a month in my wage, so I’ve had pay cuts. And my husband is also public sector because he is in the police. So in our household we have only had cuts from our wages. We then have to have days unpaid leave. Sometimes I sit there and think ‘why am I doing this job?’
“On the flip side, I’m still thinking of voting for them [the Conservatives]. I sort of think there’s got to be an end to it [austerity] and I feel that we are in this mess because of the previous [government]. It’s like they were living on the never never.
“We’ve been culled. But I also think ‘are they just are mopping up someone else’s rubbish?’ Because that deficit has come from somewhere and are they just mopping up somebody else’s mess. And they are the ones who are frugal. It’s hard.”
THE DEFICIT STILL MATTERS
Sue, a 58-year-old family development officer who specialises in child protection, said: “The Conservatives just seem, they’ve actually proven, they’re actually reducing the deficit.
“That gives you confidence that although it’s going to take a bit of time, but nevertheless we are going to get there in the end.”
She added: “It’s a case of trust…They said they were going to reduce the deficit and they have done. We are all suffering but at least you can see the progress…They can see the long game.”
Phil, a psychiatric nurse in an NHS secure unit, said Labour’s plans didn’t seem credible: “They’re offering, what they’re going to do, so much and I just don’t see where all the funding comes from...We don’t know what’s round this next corner [as the UK heads to Brexit]”
Stuart added: “The waters are always muddied but this time even more so because of Brexit. In the next five to 10 years they can promise what they want but none of them know themselves.”
Yet he and the others made clear that the still saw Labour as the “party of the north”. “I couldn’t picture Theresa May standing on a box outside Manchester Town Hall,” he said.
“All this Northern Powerhouse talk and business and the railway tracks, I don’t believe all that. If it happens, it happens but it might not be in our lifetime, 2027/2030, a stupid amount of money.”
DISLIKE OF CORBYN
Only one of the 15 focus group participants had positive words to say about Jeremy Corbyn and even he said that the Labour leader had “not been very robust” as Opposition leader and would be “ripped apart” if he became PM.
Louise said: “I also think about all the conflicts in the world. To have a strong government as well if we end up going to war.
“I don’t think to be honest with you someone like Jeremy Corbyn is strong enough. I think he’d probably say ‘oh well, let’s have a cup of tea, talk about it’.
“Whereas I think her [Theresa May], it’s a bit of Margaret Thatcher, but a nice Margaret Thatcher. I do trust her. Not that she’d be perfect, but it’s a hard job leading the country.”
John, an HGV engineer, said that Corbyn was the single most important reason why he was breaking with Labour. “When you hear him speak he doesn’t inspire you. Maybe that’s the type of bloke he is, mild-mannered and not confrontational. That’s the main thing.”
Jack, a teacher, said: “I find him too Left. I find him like ‘over there’…He seems to be trying to please the sort of lowest bracket of people who don’t work. He’s focusing on one specific group of people rather than the whole.
“I just don’t know where he’s going to get the money from. I know he says he’s raise the money in terms of the tax over £80,000, but I just can’t see all these drastic changes he’s going to bring in.”
And Corbyn’s use of the word “radical”, a phrase he used in his manifesto launch in Bradford, was a deterrent to the men in the focus group.
Phil said: “It becomes a little bit loose cannon to me. And once it becomes loose cannon, I don’t think people’s confidence is the same.” Andy, an engineering project manager, added: “It’s a hard word, not a soft word”.
He added: “We all like music in life. You couldn’t sit and watch a band if you didn’t particularly like the front man. I think that’s the problem with Corbyn.”
The Labour leader did get some support from Stephen, a father of two who works in removals, but he said it was difficult to see how a Corbyn premiership would work.
“I like Corbyn, he’s an honourable guy. The problem is it’s a dishonourable business.
“My fear is if he gets in on this wave of happy socialism, in Parliament I think the Opposition and the press will rip him apart.
“Because he’s not been a very robust shadow leader has he? I think if he got in and failed, I think it would really set the Labour party back.”
PARTY LEADERS AS FOOTBALL MANAGERS
Stephen then offered a comparision. “Can I use a football analogy? I think Corbyn is a little bit like [Roy] Hodgson when he was made England manager.
“There’s a real poor perception, he’s a good bloke, he’s a hard worker, he means what he says, sticks by his principles.
“But he’s going to get eaten up by the press, like he was.”
Stuart added: “And the team behind him aren’t great either.”
When asked which football manager Theresa May most reminded them of, the focus group – almost all of whom were Manchester United fans - said: “Arsene Wenger. Same haircut.”
The women in the group were particularly struck by Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott’s excruciating LBC radio interview when she couldn’t remember the figures behind Labour’s plans to take on more police officers.
When asked what they recalled most about politics recently, teacher Michelle said: “The massive embarrassment on TV of Diane Abbott...I watched it and I thought ‘this has got to be edited’. And then it was awful. I had a look into it and the numbers don’t add up.”
Louise added: “Do you want this person to help run the country? She hasn’t got a clue.”
Martine, a secretary who didn’t vote in 2015, said that Labour was “not forward thinking anymore”, while “the Tories are offering something different”.
LOCAL VERSUS NATIONAL
Many Labour candidates hope that their personal popularity will help them survive a possible Tory landslide, but the focus group had mixed findings on the issue.
Ivan Lewis, Bury South’s Labour MP for the last 20 years, was known to nearly every member of the groups. He had helped some secure school places for their children, attended charity events and was seen by many of them as likeable and “approachable”.
But all the women still said they would be voting Tory because the national issues were more important. There was more hope for Lewis among the men, who said they would consider voting for him out of local loyalty.
ALTERNATIVE LABOUR LEADERS
Both focus groups were shown short video clips of possible alternative Labour leaders: Yvette Cooper, Keir Starmer, Chuka Umunna and Lisa Nandy.
The list was not meant to be exhaustive, but was a snapshot of views of the current top four bookmakers’ favourites.
There was a clear split on gender lines with Umunna impressing the women most and Nandy the men’s choice.
When shown a clip of Umunna giving a TV interview, Sonia said: “He’s charismatic isn’t he? He’s animated. He looks like he’s passionate about what he’s saying as well”.
Sue added: “He’s got a nice soft tone”. Dawn joked: “I’m in love with him already.”
Stuart said the former Shadow Business Secretary appeared “fresh”, while Andy said: “He’s very well spoken, he’s very concise, engaging.”
But Wigan MP Nandy was the unanimous choice of the men and won rave reviews from her fellow northerners.
Stephen said: “My favourite so far. I would really like it if Labour had a really strong female leader.
“Because we’ve all got our mums up here, we have all got strong female mums. I think that would have a certain resonance. I would like that, I think I’d vote for her.”
Phil added: “I think you can relate to her. Instantly, there’s a chemistry, where you’re listening, you’re taking on board what’s being said.”
“She talked in layman’s terms. She didn’t try to be too high-faluted. She got to the point and got it over in her own way….I’d put Lisa in front of Corbyn every day of the week.”
John said: “She just had a bit of charisma about her”. Stuart added: “Her versus Theresa May - I would back her”.
The women had very different reactions. “Terrible”, “dull”, “her face doesn’t move”. Sonia, however, did say: “Maybe a bit more working class.”
Cooper failed to impress either group when shown a recent TV interview she had done. But her more animated performance at the final Prime Minister’s Question time of the last Parliament did win plaudits. Phil said: “More passionate, less scripted.”
Shadow Brexit Secretary Starmer was unpopular among both groups, “robot”, “typical politician”, “scripted” were among the responses. Dawn said he was “wooden”, while Jo said he had “a lack of rapport…very upper class”. Sue added: “He doesn’t want to make you listen to what he’s talking about really.”
Note: Participants were habitual Labour voters who are considering voting Conservative at this election. The vast majority were from Bury South and all were from Labour held constituencies. They were in social grades c1c2d, in work and 30-59 years old. One group was with men, one was with women.
HuffPost UK is looking at voters’ priorities outside the hubbub of the election campaign trail and what they want beyond March 29, 2019, not just June 8, 2017. Beyond Brexit leaves the bubble of Westminster and London talk to Britons left out of the conversation on the subjects they really care about, like housing, integration, social care, school funding and air quality.