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Undecided voters think Britain has got worse under the Tories, but are prepared to back Boris Johnson because their lives are “on hold” until Brexit is delivered, a focus group run by HuffPost UK and Edelman has found.
Both Leavers and Remainers in the key Tory-Labour marginal of Watford said they viewed Johnson as a “scruffy clown”, yet believed he was the leader best placed to end the Brexit uncertainty and focus on their priorities like health, education and crime.
The group, floating voters who have supported all three main political parties in the past, overwhelmingly distrusted Jeremy Corbyn and simply didn’t believe his main election claim that the Conservatives would “sell off” the NHS to Donald Trump.
They also reacted badly to Corbyn’s plan for a four-day week, claiming it would put a cap on their aspiration and ability to provide for their families, and said young voters supported the Labour leader because they were “bone idle”.
Even though many of the focus group had voted Liberal Democrat in the past, and the party was known for its local mayor in the town, most of them had a negative opinion of Jo Swinson, with one participant saying she was “deceitful”.
The group, part of HuffPost UK’s ‘The People’s Election’ series, was made up of undecided voters from so-called ‘C1/C2’ backgrounds, with jobs ranging from an electrician to a GP’s receptionist, from a sales rep to a motoring trade worker. Others worked in property management, finance and customer service. All described themselves as working class.
Asked about news stories they’d noticed in the past week, most mentioned Prince Harry and Meghan not staying with the Queen over the Christmas holiday, ITV’s ‘I’m A Celebrity’ cast list, the England footballers bust-up and the flooding in Yorkshire.
On the election, most mentioned Corbyn’s NHS sell off claim and his 4-day week plan, Johnson’s claim to get Brexit ‘done’, a row over Labour’s spending plans and Nigel Farage’s talk about pacts.
Their personal priorities
The issues most important to the group ranged from local crime to the NHS being stretched, the poor state of the roads and the cost of living.
Jo said: “My son is the most important thing to me. We just want to know that he has got a good future. That he can afford to have his own house, that he will have a job and he won’t live in an area totally bombarded by the complete concrete jungle.
“There’s far too much youth crime. I was in the town and a guy had mental issues. He was happy, he was singing, then a group of teenagers smacked him in the face. They said: ‘I’m going to throw acid in your face, mate.’ It’s so scary.”
Georgia said: “Crime. I’m terrified of going to London because I just feel like you are going to see something happen. It’s spreading out to Hertfordshire, all over the country. They need to put more into the police force. My friends’ kids need to be in schools where they don’t have metal detectors.”
Steve added: “For me, crime is a big thing. I’ve lived in Watford most of my life. Definitely the area has got worse. We consider moving somewhere quieter but then my business is in Watford. My main priority is providing for my family.”
Lewis said: “What bugs me day to day is the state of the roads in this country. I’ve been across Europe and the US and the state of our roads is appalling. It affects me on a daily basis.”
Keeley said: “What affects me most is the NHS. We are very lucky to have that in our country but it gets abused massively. I do think they need to pump money into it but I do think they need to look at access by people who don’t pay into the national health.
“Another things is property. When my children get older I’d like to know they can have the option to buy and have help.”
Paul said: “My wife works for the NHS and they are massively stretched. The NHS is the most important. There’s just no help for them.”
David said: “Whoever’s in charge of spending our cash is incompetent. They spend our money on things we shouldn’t, supporting people we shouldn’t be, then they cut back on the public services schools, education, NHS. Benefits, foreign aid, paying India for a space programme.”
Barry said: “Public services, education, NHS, everything is on the decline. It’s demoralising. And at the end of the day you end up with less in your pocket – that’s the bottom line.”
Brexit as a block to other issues
Almost all of the group said that – despite their own personal priorities and despite the Tories’ record – Brexit would be the main issue for them in the election.
Jo said: “It feels like that’s just the main problem. Our little problems, that are important to us and our lives, are on hold and they are not important. And all it is is Brexit.”
Georgia agreed that the main issue was for politicians to sort Brexit because that was their job and out of the control of the public.
“We muddle on with the day to day issues. There’s a pothole in the road, you drive round it. You know this area’s got a bad crime rate, you don’t walk down there at night.
“They know we are just going to carry on dealing with this. We have no control over a trade deal and Brexit.”
David, who works in insurance, said: “We can’t move on to those until we get Brexit done.”
Steve, a self-employed property maintenance worker, said: “Brexit is such a huge thing – the biggest, probably, in my lifetime. There’s been so much confusion. I just thing we need to see an end to it and just get a deal put through.
“To get another party in at such a crucial stage, how can that be beneficial? I’m not saying the Conservatives are great, not at all. But to get a different party in, how’s that ever going to work?”
Barry, a Remainer, said: “If at the end of the day we as a nation are having to pay more because we’re not in Europe, there’s less money to fix the potholes or for education, the NHS. So we could end up suffering.”
But he added: “No one can truly say what they would do with the money because they don’t know what they are going to have until Brexit’s gone through.”
Keeley, a receptionist, said: “It’s so confusing but it does come back to Brexit. It is again: ‘Who do you trust?’”
Paul was critical of Swinson’s plan to reverse Brexit. “She’s campaigning on the fact she’s going to reverse Brexit. We had a referendum. So even though I voted Remain, the outcome was out. So see it through.”
Steve was typical of the group’s belief that if there was another referendum the UK would repeat a Leave vote: “I think it would be Leave again. It would be such an embarrassment. I think we should just leave anyway, – it’s got beyond a joke.” Georgia added: “We don’t want to go crawling back.”
Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn or Jo Swinson?
Asked to describe Johnson, guests’ responses included “buffoon”, “scruffy”, “clown”, “foolish”, “eccentric”, “hair” and “fumbling toff” (technically two words).
Corbyn was described as “useless”, “boring”, “communist”, “wet”, “old”, “scary”, “dodgy”, “liar, snowflake idol”.
Swinson elicited the responses “who?”, “new on the scene”, “nondescript”, “deceitful”, “lies a lot”, “basic”, “mediocre” and “boring”.
When asked for reasons for her views, Georgia said of Johnson: “He’s the absolute best out of a bad bunch. I think he’s done a lot of good in the past. Boris bikes, for example, are brilliant around London because they cut the emissions pollution. And they’re quite fun when you’re pissed!
“He’s more likeable than a lot of the others – he’s not afraid to take the piss out of himself. Out of those three I think he’s probably got the most balls about him.”
Keeley: “I can’t relate to him. You do see him acting the fool on television. Is that what you want in a prime minister? I don’t know but I prefer that to Jeremy Corbyn. He’s just got nothing about him.”
Barry said of Corbyn: “He doesn’t have any class about him. He’d squander our money.”
Lewis was the sole focus group member who was prepared to back Swinson simply because she had to be better than the other two leaders: “Jeremy Corbyn? Can’t stand the geezer, can’t stand the look of him. Boris is just an absolute clown – I don’t want that geezer in charge of my country.”
When asked if Corbyn had any good points, Georgia replied: “He went to the floods. He did one good thing.”
But she added: “The younger generation... they idolise him, because they are bone idle themselves. They don’t work for a career, they work to get paid and that drives me insane.
“They think he’s this almighty god that’s going to give them handouts and they are going to get properties and all the rest of it. They would say he’s trying to be there for the good person that doesn’t earn six figure salaries.”
Among other politicians, the group had heard of very few. Both John McDonnell and Sajid Javid were total unknowns. Jacob Rees-Mogg was the only other Tory the group had heard of, and there was unanimous dislike over his remarks about Grenfell.
Labour’s NHS Trump claim
The good news for Labour was that many of the group had heard Corbyn’s claim about the Tories wanting to do a UK-US trade deal that could see Trump privatise the NHS.
But the bad news was that people did not believe it would ever be politically possible.
Nicola said: “I don’t think they’d be stupid enough to do that. There would be an uproar with everybody if that happened.” Steve said: “I don’t think the Conservatives would do that.”
Barry added: “It’s not like it’s going to go.” Georgia said: “I think it’s a scare tactic. So many people hate Trump, detest him. I don’t think he’d ever say it. He drags the NHS into every single debate.”
The key problem for Corbyn was one of trust. The group didn’t feel they could trust him to spend money wisely.
Labour’s four-day week plan
Again, several focus group members mentioned the proposal, unprompted. But again they were negative.
Steve said: “It’s a great idea but how do you get everything done? Longer days? I work five days a week but it could easily be seven.”
Barry said: “I don’t know how it works with private companies. Just because the government say you should work four days a week.”
Georgia added: “I personally work, like, a six-day week. There isn’t enough time in the day that we have in the moment.
“The more you work, the more you get back. Whether that’s a self-employed person or a bonus from a commission-based job. Myself personally, I’m not going to cut back my working, I’m choosing to work extra to put more money in my pot.”
The group had also heard the Tories’ attack line that Labour would spend £1.2tn. Many of them felt the attack failed because the sum was difficult to assess without a comparison to Conservative plans.
But it was also clear that many agreed with the Tory claim that Labour in power had left the country with debts and overspending that needed remedying.
David said of Labour’s policies: “It’s on things that we can’t afford and Corbyn’s idealistic policies are just not reality. They’d bankrupt the country.”
Nicola aded: “When Labour was last in charge we ended up in recession so hearing that about him wanting to spend that amount of money, my concern is: is that going to happen again?”
Feeling optimistic or pessimistic?
Six of the nine-strong group said life had got tougher in recent years and would get worse over the next 20 years.
Paul, who works in the motor trade, said: “Think about the last five years. Has anything got better in the last five years? Everything I can think of has got worse.”
Barry, an electrician, added: “There’s been a gradual slide. The slide will just keep going.”
Nicola, who works in finance, said: “Knife crime – we are too soft on people, I think it’s just going to get worse and worse. People are not scared of anything any more. They are not scared if they are going to prison for 10 years because they’ve got TV in prison.”
Several focus group members said that Brexit would not be resolved but they were prepared for that. Steve said: “It’s going to take 10 to 15 years to probably resolve and come the other side of it.”
Georgia: “I think whatever gets agreed, Brexit will be blamed for years. We will be talking about this in 10 years’ time and go: ‘Oh, yeah, that happened – it must be Brexit.’ It’s just going to be that scapegoat even if it’s not because of it.”
Steve agreed: “Us leaving will be a scapegoat for everything to go a bit more expensive... food will go up. It will be an excuse to make petrol more expensive.”
Note: the focus group participants were from social classes ‘C1/C2’, aged between 25 and 55, a mixture of Leave and Remain voters and undecided about who to vote for in the general election.
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.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.