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If The Election Continues On This Path - The Conservatives Will Steam Roller Everyone Else

29/04/2017 10:00 BST | Updated 02/05/2017 10:23 BST
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS via Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn is a solvent, dissolving the bonds between traditional Labour voters and their party. Just as we saw in Scotland, working class voters brought up in Labour voting families, are considering putting their cross in a different box for the first time. With the emotional link to Labour withered, they are looking for rational reasons to support the party. They are coming up empty.

Labour's lack of a sense of purpose is all the more damaging because of the context the country finds itself in. The 'just about managing' voters we spoke to in our focus groups in Slough know that the country has a big task ahead, and feel they need a leader with a clear sense of direction and the conviction to go in that direction against opposition at home and abroad. Compared to Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May is that leader.

The core Conservative dividing line at the election is plausible and important. The participants in our focus groups found it easy to believe that government would be more stable and stronger under Theresa May.

The frustration for Labour candidates is that the Conservative political advantage sits alongside deep concern about the state of the country. We heard stories of schools fundraising to buy masking tape for the kids to use, running short of paper and failing to replace teaching assistants. Concerns about GP waiting times have not abated and the cost of living crisis appears to be coming back.

But, despite being in government for seven years, the Conservative party is not held to be particularly responsible for the situation. These issues were talked about like a spell of bad weather, or a case of the flu rather than a consequence of government decisions.

If there is good news for the Labour party, it is that things could be even worse.

UKIP was not relevant to these voters, despite the fact many voted Leave. There was a more nuanced and engaged discussion of immigration than I heard in focus groups at the last election - with a big distinction between migrants who work and those who don't, and a concern for ensuring we continue to be able to access skills the country needs and markets we want to sell to.

As for the Liberal Democrats, the longest conversation about them was an effort to recall the party leaders' name. They will hope that the publicity they receive during the campaign, coupled with their unusually clear position on Brexit helps them gain relevance.

If the election continues on this path, the Conservative party will steam roller everyone else.

However there were hints at ways Labour might be able to shift the balance somewhat. Traditional Labour supporters were worried about what the Conservatives might slip into their manifesto while everyone's attention was focused on Brexit. A pause in the infighting will help. The national campaign's 'party of the many vs party of the privileged few' framework awoke emotional affinity from the most hardcore Labour voters. The party's policy had surprising cut through - though the bank holiday plan backfired. Voters like the idea of more time off, but a party offering it felt flippant and desperate.

While Theresa May was a huge asset for the Conservatives, there was also some awareness that she was changing her mind quite frequently. As one man said, "she's no Thatcher".

The discussion had some echoes of focus groups about Gordon Brown in Spring 2007 - with strong positivity sitting alongside small seeds of doubt that grew through that summer. It took the non-election that September to make those seeds bloom. It is hard to imagine anything of similar power happening before June 8th, but it is not so hard to think the Brexit negotiations might create such a moment when they start. No wonder Theresa May wanted to get her five years locked in.