Lifelong Labour voters are backing Theresa May’s plans to cut wealthy people’s entitlement to winter fuel allowance, free school meals and social care funding, the latest HuffPost UK-Edelman focus group has revealed.
Both women and men in the key marginal of Bury South in Lancashire said that they supported an extension of means-testing – where income is linked to state aid - and opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to abolish student tuition fees.
The focus group participants, all from working class backgrounds, said that it was unfair that the better off in society were given the winter fuel allowance, which is worth up to £300 a year.
Jo, who works with troubled children, said: “You get some elderly people who are on pensions, plus say another £30,000. They don’t need the £100.”
Louise, a council social services worker, said: “I’d rather it goes somewhere else in the country.”
Stuart, an account manager, added: “That’s always been stupid hasn’t it? Millionaires, famous people who donate it back. Just don’t give it to them in the bloody first place.”
The findings, part of HuffPost UK’s Beyond Brexit series, came after the Conservatives and Labour finally unveiled their 2017 general election manifestos ahead of the June 8 poll.
Several of the participants said that they had seen Apprentice star Lord Sugar say he had tried to hand back his winter fuel handout – which was first introduced by Gordon Brown – only to be told he had to keep it.
The focus groups felt just as strongly that the Prime Minister was right to end universal free school meals for under-8s in primary schools, a policy introduced by David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
The Tory election manifesto published this week vowed to end the current giveaway of hot dinners and replace it with a new policy to hand out free cold breakfasts to those children who wanted them.
Although Labour has attacked the PM as “the lunch snatcher” and Jamie Oliver has hit out at the plan, the HuffPost UK-Edelman focus groups were unanimous in their backing for May’s changes.
Michelle, a teacher and a single mum, said she struggled to make ends meet. “I know people who earn over £100,000 and their children get free school meals. [You think] ‘What?’
“When my child was at primary school, I had to struggle to pay for the dinner money. It doesn’t make sense. It should be means tested.”
Louise added: “They could save the money, it should go to the NHS or other areas in the school, to pay for an extra teaching assistant I think it’s crazy money”.
Phil, a NHS psychiatric nurse in a secure unit, said: “Call me old fashioned, call me a dinosaur but I don’t think there’s a lot wrong with the means test. If you can afford it, you can afford it.”
John, an HGV mechanic, added: “My little boy starts school in September and I’ve got no problem paying a tenner a week.”
The focus groups were surprised when they discovered that Labour was planning to extend free school meals to primary school pupils of all ages, rather than just the current system for infants.
Dawn, a recruitment consultant and mother of two, said: “It’s a waste of money”. Louise dismissed the Jeremy Corbyn plan as “a ridiculous idea”.
Jack, himself a young teacher, was scathing. “Free school meals for everyone… I think it’s just mind-blowing. Where’s he going to fund it all?”
Jo, who has two children, added: “I think you are throwing away a lot of money because in every school there would be a good half of people who don’t need it.”
The voters in Bury South - a bellwether constituency where Labour’s Ivan Lewis is facing a strong challenge from the Tories - repeatedly said that they liked some of the party’s policies but worried that they involved too much spending when the deficit was still high.
Teacher Jack said: “I genuinely like the new Labour manifesto, it’s just the implications we are going to have in one, two, five years’ time.”
Nurse Phil added: “The consequences [of] the manifesto. I’m struggling me, I like looking at the figures. The ins, the outs, the expenditure, I just wonder if it’s a catastrophe waiting to happen.”
As with last week’s focus group in London among students, Labour’s plan to spend £11.2bn on abolishing university tuition fees was also unpopular.
Dawn was blunt. “In my eyes that would mean people are going to go to university just to doss for three years,” she said. “People who genuinely want to go to university won’t have the places.”
Louise said: “Again, make it means tested”
Phil, whose state-school educated teenage son has been offered place at Oxford, said he would “worry” about Labour’s plan.
“My concern is if they bring those fees down to zero…My lad is saying ‘hopefully I’ve got a job good enough to pay these fees back’.
“If it’s zero, I hate to say it I think there’s a lot out there who will see it as another easy meal ticket for three years of doing nothing. It’s a massive strain on the budget”.
The group of traditional Labour voters, who all had strong family ties to the party stretching back generations, were warmer about May’s new plan to help those with assets of under £100,000 get free care for the elderly.
Many of them felt that they were “in the middle” of the income scale, not poor enough to get benefits but far from well off, and felt that any recognition of “ordinary working families” was welcome.
Phil said the Tory plan seemed like “a fairer method”. He explained how his father had become a paraplegic late in life but was asked to contribute £9,000 to a special wheelchair simply because he had saved all his life and accumulated assets. “It leaves a sour taste in the mouth,” he said.
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.