Jeremy Corbyn faces an uphill struggle to win over Leave voters in the Midlands, a focus group run by HuffPost UK and Edelman suggests.
Brexit voters in Newcastle-under-Lyme, most of whom backed Labour in the past, said they were ready to switch allegiance to Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party as they branded Corbyn “airy fairy”, “weak”, “bland and indecisive”.
The group was also sceptical about the Labour manifesto – which includes billions for the NHS, a payout for “WASPI” women, free dental care and free broadband – with voters welcoming it as “Christmas come early” but questioning if “Santa Claus” Corbyn could deliver.
But “buffoon” Boris Johnson did not escape criticism either, with the Tory leader deemed a “liar and untrustworthy” by one and a “blubberer” who should “get some intelligence” by another.
Proud of Stoke’s history of the potteries, some were angry about the impact of austerity and crime as they asked politicians to “put us back on the map”.
They also raised concerns about US-UK trade deal talks and whether the NHS could be “on the table”.
And despite the Conservatives presiding over the Brexit crisis, the group did not blame Johnson for the delay, saying it “wasn’t his fault” and it was “frustrating to watch” how “parliament” blocked a deal.
The focus group was held after a turbulent week in the campaign, as Johnson’s manifesto launch and Corbyn’s disastrous interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil was followed by a poll that predicted a 68-seat majority for the Tories.
‘I Didn’t Vote For A Deal, I Voted Out’
Asked about the Neil interview, John – a grandfather who works in retail – said: “That interview has probably lost Labour the election.”
But despite having reservations over Corbyn’s Brexit policy, he said: “If it was just Brexit yes or no, it would be Conservative, but it isn’t, it’s about what goes on afterwards and what the Conservatives have done, are doing and will do – I can’t vote for that.”
John accepted Brexit could mean “for the short term it is going to be really austere”, but said he “voted Leave for [his] grandchildren more than anything”.
The group understood Johnson’s “get Brexit done” pledge and Corbyn’s vow to renegotiate a deal and hold a second vote.
But Jamie, a garage owner and father of two, said Corbyn was “sitting on the fence”.
Tim, a father and part-time courier, said the UK should already have left the EU, adding: “I didn’t vote for a deal, I voted out.”
Caroline, a mother and primary school worker, thought Corbyn came across as “rude” during the Neil interview.
“We voted out so we could take control of our borders and immigration and that’s what I expected, instantly,” she said.
Fears Over NHS And ‘American Prices’
All of the group had picked up on news of secret trade meeting between US and UK officials which involved discussions over the NHS and drug pricing.
But they did not necessarily agree with Corbyn’s claim the “NHS is for sale”.
“It doesn’t make any money, why would they want to buy it?” said Lisa, a college worker and mum.
John said: “I don’t think it is about buying the NHS as an ongoing thing in total. Basically what they are saying is part of the trade deal with America is that we will undertake to buy an amount of drugs off them and those drugs will be at American prices, not at the price that we can negotiate elsewhere.”
Cath, a senior administrator and grandmother, raised concerns over what it could mean for hormone replacement therapy (HRT), insulin and blood pressure tablets.
But Caroline added: “The thing with the NHS is that it was never designed to do what it does now, so it’s kind of like a broken concept. We just don’t have the money to put into it.
“It has to change – not necessarily privatising, but people expect a lot more from the NHS now than when it was first set up.”
‘What Next? Free Pot Noodles For Migrants’
The voters were not convinced the Labour manifesto was “achievable”.
“I’ll give you this and give you that to win votes,” said Tim. “It’s Santa Claus.”
Lisa, local college worker and mum of two, did not think offering free broadband was realistic.
“Why, and how is it going to be paid for?” she said.
Tim, who said he “loved Tony Blair” and liked shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, said: “I think the Tories can run a country.”
“It’s a big gamble to put that to one side and say: ‘I’ll go with you’.”
He added: “I like Labour, I don’t trust the man. I would vote Tory rather than vote Corbyn. I would vote Labour if they put somebody like Starmer or somebody in.”
“Sounds like Christmas come early to me,” said Jamie, adding: “Manifestos are wish lists, aren’t they?”
Tim said, of both parties, “neither of them can carry out their plans” to spend “billions and billions”.
“The place needs investment and putting back on the map,” said Jamie. “It was on the map once.”
He was unconvinced by the Labour manifesto’s numerous pledges, adding: “What’s next? It’ll be free Pot Noodles for migrants.”
Lisa said Labour’s pledge to compensate women who lost out due to changes to the pension age, known as “WASPI” women, “was a bit of an afterthought – it wasn’t in the manifesto”.
She added: “The thing about politics is that it’s truth, isn’t it? It’s whether you believe Jeremy Corbyn and those people can deliver what they say and what’s in their manifesto, because it’s easy enough to put a manifesto together.”
Tim did not like the pledge for universal free broadband and said the government should “means test – it’s unpopular but it’s the only way to be fair”.
Anti-Semitism ‘Twisted By Media’
As Corbyn faced renewed calls to apologise for Labour’s record on anti-Semitism, many in the group were unsure if it would affect their vote.
Lisa said she had “quite a bit of respect” for Corbyn for refusing to apologise, saying: “I’m not sure it is something he needed to apologise for, because I think it has all been twisted a little bit by the media.”
But she added: “It’s one of the big issues that people have got with Corbyn, these question marks that hang over his head.
“It’s quite easy for people to chuck out comments like ‘IRA’ or ‘anti-Jews’. I just wonder if people actually know what the truth, is or whether it even matters what the truth is, or whether it is all a big ruse to discredit him.”
John said he thought some comments were “taken out of context from years ago”.
Cath, meanwhile, said anti-Semitism “shouldn’t just be pushed under the carpet”, adding that if it was “dealt with, I can move forward”.
Boris Johnson ‘Endearing’
The group had an overall positive view of Johnson.
Lisa said he seemed unrehearsed and that was “endearing”, adding: “It’s not a manipulation”
Caroline, who voted Remain and previously voted Conservative, said she was “not sure about BoJo” and feared he was a “bumbling idiot”.
Tim, who will back Johnson, said the PM “blubbers and he repeats”, adding: “We’re talking about the country, where we’re going and people’s health, fortune, everything – and he talks about ‘oven ready’.”
“I just think: ‘Get some intelligence in you.’”
But he added: “It wasn’t his fault that [Brexit was delayed]. He would have got us out on [October 31]. It was parliament.
“I think he is trying.”
Cath, who was undecided who to vote for, said she liked Theresa May and couldn’t understand why the Tories had picked Johnson for leader, adding: “There were a lot [of] better people. I don’t understand.”
Lisa said of Johnson: “If he believes something is right, then he will just say it and I’m starting to respect that a little bit.”
Austerity ‘Massive Issue’
All of the group agreed Britain was a “worse” place than 10 years ago.
They cited “hospital waiting lists”, “not enough money for schools”, and crime among the issues.
“We seem to be fighting for every single penny,” said Cath. “Your money is being taken away all the time.”
They felt migrants were sending money abroad and that the government was “paying money to Brussels”.
Jamie said there was “more money in the 1980s” and he wanted Newcastle to be given more investment, but said: “It was potteries, mining and steel, so there’s no potteries, no mining and no steel – how do you replace that?”
John said: “We’re a service country now, not a production country.”
Corbyn Vs Johnson
Zena, a family support worker and mum, said Corbyn came across as “arrogant”, while others who were asked of their impression of the Labour leader said “irritating liar” and “for the youngsters”.
Tim said: “I don’t like Corbyn because he’s a pacifist.”
Cath said he “didn’t seem as genuine” as Johnson.
Asked what words reminded them of Johnson, different members of the group said “Donald Trump and eccentric”, “Brexit”, “liar and untrustworthy”, “blubberer”, “hair and humour” and “buffoon”.
“He talks well but you can’t believe anything he says. How many untruths has he said?” said John.
“He has given us 20,000 police officers but that only brings us up to a level where we were five years ago. It’s crazy.”
The People’s Election is a HuffPost UK series aimed at getting beyond the politicians’ agendas for the 2019 election, trying to find out what really matters to the public.