In These Divisive Times, One Thing Voters Agree On – Brexit Is Boring

The abiding image from a Watford focus group is not really about the election – it's one of resigned frustration, Edelman's public affairs MD James Morris writes.
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There is nothing more boring than Brexit. A peasouper of a debate about tariffs, markets and exit bills has left voters with few fixed points beyond the dreadful need to get it over with. At least, that was the consensus of the focus group of swing voters we conducted on Thursday night in Watford.

In a town which split 51:49 in favour of Leave, we brought together a mix of voters to discuss the election. But it would be wrong to think of them as “Leavers” and “Remainers”. While Brexit was an identity issue for one or two, for the rest it was almost the opposite – a distraction from the things they really cared about. This lack of a strong Brexit identity might explain how they come to be swing voters in the first place; but it might also suggest that the quantitative surveys that show high levels of polarisation are missing the nuance that comes out when you talk to people.

Watford is a town characterised by swing voting. It has an elected Liberal Democrat mayor and a Conservative incumbent who won a majority of just 2,092 votes over his Labour opponent in 2017. A few miles inside the M25, but a long way from the glistening global metropolis; it is the kind of place where participants will say: “I’m scared to take my son to London on the Tube. He’s never been there. I just feel so sad.”

Of nine participants, six thought the UK would be a worse place to live in 20 years’ time. Not because they were expecting some grand catastrophe, but because that is a linear extension of the experience of the last few years. “All of the politicians are arguing all the time, and nobody can agree on anything. How is anything going to get better?

The optimists were no more positive about the political establishment, but they had greater faith in themselves and each other. They also saw the rise of concern about issues like mental health and climate change to be a sign that maybe things could turn a corner. “Mental health is becoming a massive thing, and we’re getting more savvy on the environment, that’s fantastic.”

Two things united the group.

The first was a preference for Boris Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn. Boris was “a clown”, “a buffoon”, “scruffy” and “a bumbling toff”. But Jeremy was “wet”, “boring”, “communist” and “dodgy”. They preferred the clown to the commie. The only other politicians they knew were Jo Swinson (“New”, “Non descript”), Diane Abbott and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The second areas of consensus was a belief that the way to stop Brexit being a distraction is to get it done. Whichever way they voted, and whatever they thought would be happening in an ideal world, in practice they thought we had no option but to push on. The most Brexit-positive voices were not naïve – they knew this would not end in January but were optimistic it would pan out well in the end. Sceptics thought Brexit was going to be damaging, but still felt it was what we have voted for and so should be done. “I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” (that’s Macbeth, not Watford).

Focus groups are inherently limited. We heard from a handful of people. They are all swing voters, but we don’t know if they are typical swing voters. We will learn more over the coming weeks as we do more of these.

But the abiding image from Watford is not really about the election. It’s the resigned frustration with the choices people have, the failure of three years of debate to help people understand Brexit and the need to better connect political decision making with people’s lives.

James Morris is a former pollster and managing director of public affairs at Edelman.


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