Don't Underestimate Labour's Chances – Even At This Late Stage

A focus group in Uxbridge showed how the opposition could still succeed, Edelman's public affairs MD James Morris writes.
Directions to a polling station for a UK general election, European election or local election. Shallow depth of field.
Directions to a polling station for a UK general election, European election or local election. Shallow depth of field.
TylaArabas via Getty Images

Who wouldn’t want free broadband, a four day working week for the same pay and a free stake in the company they work for? Judging by the opinion polls, the answer is that most people aren’t interested: seven in 10 voters are not currently planning to give Labour their cross.

If Jeremy Corbyn is to make it into Downing Street that has to change, and this week’s Edelman/HuffPost focus groups told us a bit about how that could happen. Talking to a group of Remain voters in Boris Johnson’s seat of Uxbridge, we saw how Labour could make progress, even at this late stage.

The key is trust. As things stand, the bigger the promise, the worse it sounds: “There must be a catch. They probably won’t do it. They’re just saying what I want to hear.”

As the party making huge promises of transformational change, this trust issue is a bigger problem for Labour than the relatively more circumspect Tory party who – under Johnson - have been relentless in building faith that “Leave means leave”. The deal seals the deal with voters: it shows they can “Get Brexit done”. (Don’t tell anyone about the next stage of negotiations.)

The potential pivot for Labour is Corbyn’s demeanour and words at the manifesto launch. He looked like a different person to the awkward politician who was in Tuesday night’s debate. Relaxed, interacting with the audience, confident. If he can come across like that consistently, he might rebuild faith, as he did in 2017.

The words also mattered. He didn’t duck the trust issue, even if his approach to winning it was unusual. Where parties normally build trust by limiting their promises to things that sound credible, he decided to challenge the audience’s scepticism. “They are going to tell you that everything in this manifesto is impossible… Because they don’t want real change. Why would they? The system is working just fine for them.” For some in the group this was enough to make them pause rather than feel patronised.

This was manifesto launch day: a party’s cleanest media hit in the campaign. If you can’t get a good reaction when you set out your prospectus, you are in serious trouble. If you can, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will do well during the rest of the campaign.

Labour are vulnerable to their policies being unpicked. Take free broadband. Respondents (in this well-connected London seat) thought state broadband would be crap broadband. There were privacy concerns. The tax rises to pay for all of this are controversial too.

Another risk for Labour is that that they can’t manage the tension between claiming transformational change and making the policies sound credible. While some spokespeople are out arguing that the spending would still leave Britain with a smaller state than Belgium others are leaning into the radical pace of change. It is hard to be both moderate and revolutionary.

But there is fertile ground. 70% think the economy is rigged on behalf of the rich and powerful. Experience is increasingly of creaking public services. One teacher talked of having 30 kids in her class and one Pritt Stick to share. She also can’t afford to live in the borough she teaches in.

These focus groups suggested that Labour’s vacillation on Brexit is less likely to be a problem than the Liberal Democrats hoped. Among the Remain voters, the abiding sense was fatigue – just as it was during last week’s focus group in Watford.

If the manifesto launch had been a Dementia Tax debacle as May suffered in 2017, it would be game over. Now, it is not quite that. Labour may be three goals down with 10 minutes left, but stranger things have happened.

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


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