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In Bury South, Labour Voters Are Plumping For Strong And Stable Over Principled And Weak

20/05/2017 10:00
Colin McPherson via Getty Images

We're in Bury South, a seat held by Labour's Ivan Lewis for twenty years. Around the table are eight local women aged between thirty and fifty. After some introductions, our moderator James Morris asks two questions.

"Who did you vote for in 2015?"

Each woman takes it in turn to reply.

"Labour."

"Labour."

"Labour."

"Labour."

"Labour."

"Labour."

"I didn't vote."

"Labour."

"And second question, who would you vote for if the election were held tomorrow?"

"Conservatives."

"Conservatives."

"Conservatives."

"Conservatives."

"Conservatives."

"Conservatives."

"Conservatives."

"Conservatives."

I settle back in my chair. This feels like a big deal.

According to the latest YouGov poll some 13% of Labour's 2015 vote is intending to vote Conservative in three weeks. That would translate into 1.2million voters switching from Labour to the Conservatives in two years if it held through election day. So perhaps I shouldn't be surprised to find some in Bury.

Except I am surprised. And over the next three hours I discover that many of the voters are too. Voting for the Conservatives is hard in the north. Not everywhere of course, but still. So, when I noticed one of the women hiding her answer I knew she was writing "Conservative" and I knew why she was hiding it.

"My mum would disown me if she knew", she said.

I understand. Later, in the men's group which follows, one of the respondents appears to contort himself when asked how he is intending to vote. After an interminable pause, during which he appeared to be experiencing something akin to a near-death experience, he reluctantly said he's more than likely voting Conservative.

I recall an anecdote from a canvasser who was berated from across the street with the following: "You ought to be f***ing ashamed of yourself for forcing me to vote Tory!"

For many of the men and women in the focus group on Thursday the choice facing them is an agonising one. On the one hand, they despise Jeremy Corbyn; on the other they despise the legacy that the Conservatives have wrought upon their town. Remarkably, many of the participants were enduring the worst of continued spending cuts imposed over the last seven years. These were teachers voting Conservative. Care workers voting Conservative. Civil servants and nursing staff voting Conservative. In a world where the choice is so depressingly stark they're plumping for strong and stable over principled but weak.

For some, the Labour party sounded like it was past its sell-by date. That it didn't have anything new to say, only repeating tired old policies which either didn't make sense or were unaffordable. The participants felt that Labour had the wrong ideas, the wrong priorities and the wrong leader.

Take free school meals as an example. The Conservatives have pledged to means-test school meals so that those which can afford school meals should pay. The participants agreed. They thought state support should go to the poorest of course, but those that can pay should. When the participants were told that Labour's policy was to provide free school meals for all up to the age of eleven the response was scathing.

"That's a waste of money", one said.

"That's a ridiculous idea", said another.

They were equally scathing on the abolition of all tuition fees, another Labour policy. Instead, the participants again favoured a scale of support with the poorest receiving free tuition with those that could afford to do so paying for theirs. It didn't feel like an extreme position to take. In truth, in the room it seemed to be a perfectly reasonable objection to universal free tuition. More importantly, it fed into a deeper sense that Labour were profligate with the nation's finances when they were last in government.

If there was any good news for Labour, on a night where there was precious little, it was that these voters are not finished with Labour. They were all prepared to vote Labour again, and some were open enough to say they hoped they would do. They just couldn't bring themselves to vote for the current leader of the Labour party, even though many acknowledged that the local MP (Ivan Lewis) had done a good job and was popular in the town.

This latter point, effectively neutralising the Corbyn problem by running a strong local campaign around a good local MP, appeared to get a hearing in the men's group. So much so that by the end of the group some of the men had swung back to Labour. That said, it remains to be seen whether such an approach would prove effective in seats where the Labour candidate was not as strong as Mr Lewis.

One thing's for sure. Whichever approach Labour uses to try to win back these voters is likely to run up against a fair deal of resistance if Jeremy Corbyn leads the party. The switch from Labour to the Conservatives is happening, and mostly not via a Ukip gateway. In Scotland, the Labour party has not yet been able to get back the votes it has lost to the SNP. The hope from the respondents in Bury at least is that the party finds a new leader and comes back to them. They want to vote for Labour. Their families have always done so. They just can't. And won't.

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