The latest focus group by James Johnson of J.L. Partners that aired today on Times Radio saw undecided voters from so-called “Red Wall” seats asked about the performances of Labour, Keir Starmer and his frontbench team over the last year.
Summing up the opposition party in a word, one member wrote down “change”. Another participant echoed that, and added “positive”, telling the rest of the group that the Labour leader is challenging what Boris Johnson is doing.
One described Labour as “weak”, while another dubbed the party “lost”, arguing that “they were the people’s choice, especially working-class people” but said “[Jeremy] Corbyn ruined it”. Another wrote down “hindsight”.
“Argumentative,” a focus group member said when asked to sum up Starmer, before adding: “Which isn’t a bad thing.” Another responded that the word “power” came to mind, while another said he “looks the part”.
“Lots of work ahead. He’s got an awful lot of work to do to win the people over,” one participant explained. The individual who wrote “hindsight” on his response to the one-word question for the party gave the same answer for its leader.
Several seemed to agree on Starmer looking like a leader, with one adding that he seems “media-friendly”. “He comes across really well,” another said. “He certainly looks the part. It’s whether there’s any substance behind it all, I guess.”
Two reported that they felt he was an “elitist”, with several highlighting his knighthood. “The fact that he’s got a ‘sir’ in front of his name would probably put off many voters as they’d see him as an elitist,” one said.
They described him as “certainly not left-wing”, saying that the Labour leader is “in the same class as Boris” while mentioning his previous career as a barrister and expressing doubt that he would be able to “understand the working-class person”.
Group members had trouble identifying what he stands for, saying Covid was overshadowing everything. “We don’t know because we haven’t heard enough. There’s no air time because it’s all Covid so I genuinely don’t know,” one explained.
On whether the term “competent” accurately described the Labour Party, two of the focus group members indicated that it did, while five of the respondents said it did not and one other said they did not know.
Asked for a thumbs up, thumbs down or “in the middle” on whether Starmer had done well over the past year, seven of the respondents took the middling option and one said the opposition party leader had done well.
Knowledge of the shadow frontbench was low among participants. “They haven’t been publicised,” one said. “Apart from the leader, he’s on national television all the time, I couldn’t even pronounce or write the name of his right-hand man.”
The group was formed by people from two Birmingham constituencies, as well as seats Dudley North and Bolton North East. Half voted Labour in 2019 and half voted Tory, and they are now broadly undecided about who they would back next time.
Here’s what they said about the Labour frontbench team…
Dodds received a mostly positive review from members of the focus group. “She was really good. She captured me. She was to the point, factual, very good at speaking. She kept me wanting to listen to more,” one group member said. Another described the Shadow Chancellor as “on my wavelength”, while one said she “spoke well” and was “clear”. The most critical appraisal? “The only thing for me, it was like a plan for this, a plan for that, a plan for the other – what is the plan?” Most of the group members did not know who she was at the start of the session.
The broadly warm response will be welcome news for Dodds after a week of speculation on whether she might go. Reports emerged last weekend that Starmer could replace Dodds with Rachel Reeves after the May elections. The Labour leader responded to rumours of a reshuffle on the campaign trail this week by saying he has “full confidence” in his Shadow Chancellor.
Some thought the Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was “confident”, “caring” and “empathetic” after they viewed a clip of her speech to Labour’s online Connected conference last year. But others said she was “too polished” and did not seem “natural” or “believable”.
The focus group was impressed by Starmer’s former leadership rival. One member said she had heard of Nandy before the exercise. The Shadow Foreign Secretary came across well in her BBC Question Time appearance according to the group, which praised her for “saying what she thinks” and not just speaking in “soundbites”. One reported that Nandy “sounded genuine”, and another said she “seems like she’d fight our corner”.
Miliband struggled to escape his past as Labour leader. “We’ve seen him before,” one member said, before adding that he had actually forgotten that the Labour MP was still in the party. The Shadow Business Secretary also suffered from comparison to his one-time leadership challenger and brother David Miliband. “There’s two brothers in the Labour Party at the time,” one explained. “One is articulate and the other one wasn’t – the one we just watched wasn’t.” Described by one person as “passionate” in his recent speech on the environment, another expressed the view that he “didn’t really know what he was talking about in my opinion, he was reading from a script”.
Has Keir Starmer got what it takes to become PM?
Matt Chorley convenes the Times Radio Focus group with James Johnson to ask swing voters in Red Wall seats what they think after Starmer's first year as Labour leader.
— Times Radio (@TimesRadio) April 1, 2021