What Does Labour Need to Do to Swing Ultra-Marginals Like Nuneaton in 2020?

09/05/2016 16:11 | Updated 10 May 2016

At 01:53 on Friday 8 May 2015, Marcus Jones was returned as MP for Nuneaton with an increased majority, and Labour realised it was staying in opposition. Civil servants could put down their copies of Labour's manifesto - its plans would not be realized. Labour failed.

Nuneaton was one of twenty-three ultra-marginals the party had identified as crucial to determining whether Ed Miliband would be Prime Minister. It will be just as important in 2020: if Labour is going to form the next government, it has to sway the people of Nuneaton.

We recently conducted focus groups with former Labour voters there to see how Labour were progressing.

The voters we spoke with have very low trust in politics and politicians. They think they are venal, do not understand ordinary people's lives, act in their own interests and routinely break promises.

Voters see Jeremy Corbyn as ill-equipped to lead a party, let alone a country. They see him and think he looks scruffy. When they hear about him, it is often in the context of petty disputes, or he is taking a position they disagree with. There is very little sense of what he stands for.

You want a charismatic leader and to me he's more like Worzel Gummidge. - Woman, Nuneaton

I would consider voting Labour but only if they changed the leader. Because Corbyn doesn't portray the right image, doesn't give out the right vibe. - Man, Nuneaton

I'm easily led. But by him - I just don't see how he would ever influence me. - Woman, Nuneaton

While some saw him as principled and willing to stick to his principles, they didn't always share them. As one person said 'If he has a viewpoint he tends to stick to it and will say something even if it sounds stupid.'

Voters thought Labour was losing its last links to its working class roots. Participants talked about their childhood, often growing up in Labour voting families where they saw the party as representing the interests of working people. They think the party today cares too little for rewarding people who contribute, and is too willing to let others glide. This is believed both to be immoral and to create incentives that are harming the next generation

As has been the case for many years, the issue that pre-occupies Tory/Labour swing voters is immigration. This is not seen as one issue among many, but as a root cause of many of the problems the country, and their families, face. The perception is that uncontrolled immigration has led to excessive demand on public services, created unfair competition in the labour market and undermined who we are as a country.

There's just all of a sudden a massive influx of people in this country and everything seems to need rubber walls to fit everything in. - Woman, Nuneaton

Q: How does the Labour party feel about England?

A: I think the patriotic side has gone. It's nothing now, is it? And I think maybe we need to get that back and look after what we've got. - Woman, Nuneaton

I think Labour lost its way in what the benefits system was brought in for, which was for people that are working, lost their job, need a buffer to get another job. Now -But you don't get that now. That's right, yeah. People are using it as an income now - the benefits. And Labour let it drag on and get worse basically. - Men, Nuneaton

Despite this, there was cause for hope. There was very little sense of the Conservative agenda, and voters thought they had achieved little. Boris Johnson is seen as a smart quirky joker, not PM material. George Osborne is seen as 'sneaky' and there is little awareness and even less approval of Theresa May. A decade in power is seen as plenty of time to be judged on their record. They can no longer claim to be clearing up Labour's mess. Ukip is seen as a legitimate protest vote, not a serious alternative government. Voters continue to see Labour as the only other real game in town, and they have a deep affinity with the party based on their family history. Labour has every opportunity to make progress.

A strong leader and a solution to Labour's brand weaknesses will allow political gravity to operate, and potentially swing Nuneaton to Labour in 2020. However, it becomes much easier for Labour to win if it has a plan these voters can buy into.

At its heart, this plan is about creating the impression that Labour is a dynamic force to improve voters' lives. A clear purpose is how the party can rise above day-to-day news cycles; it will allow a leader to show determination and strength; and is central to rebuilding trust.

This blog is adapted from 'Returning a Labour Government', a report by James Morris and Ian Warren. You can read the full report here.