Focus group: how do swing voters see Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak?

Sienna Rodgers

Swing voters were asked to share their impressions of Keir Starmer as well as Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak in the latest focus group by James Johnson of J.L. Partners that aired today on Times Radio – and the comments did not offer positive news for Labour.

Asked for their views on Boris Johnson, quoted responses from the panel of voters included:

  • “He just says a lot of words before he gets to the point… he’s a rambler”
  • “He’s a bit of joke”
  • “Bit of a clown”
  • “Someone with that personality to lead our country through Covid was just worrying”
  • “Bumbling buffoon”
  • “In our family, we call him Tim Nice But Dim”
  • “It’s quite nice to see a politician that actually makes a joke… more down to earth”
  • “He’s just like a figurehead, as far as I’m concerned”
  • “He just comes across a bit too wanting to be likeable”
  • “He’s obviously a figurehead… Is he the person that I’d have wanted in the Covid? No, probably not. Do I hate him? No, because you can’t hate him”
  • “Before he goes on stage, he ruffles his hair… I feel confident in the fact that he is well educated and he knows what he’s talking about”

James Johnson described the reaction as “pretty positive” for Boris Johnson. The pollster noted that voters seemed to be “in on the act”, which gave them “a sense that even if he wasn’t really who he was making out to be, actually underneath there was someone who a bit more confident… and on top of his brief”.

The pollster described this as the “worst of both worlds” for those trying to attack the Prime Minister on the basis that he is putting on an act. Keir Starmer described Boris Johnson in his conference speech as “a showman with nothing left to show” and “a trickster who has performed his one trick”.

The panel of swing voters was then asked about Keir Starmer, which did not prompt a single positive reaction. The responses aired on Times Radio included the following:

  • “I dislike Keir Starmer. I think he uses his law background to try and bamboozle Boris. And anything that has gone wrong he’s very, very quick to say ‘I would have done this’ or ‘I would have done that'”
  • “Whether it’s fake news or not, Keir Starmer is actually remembered for the one that let Jimmy Savile get away. He was in charge of the CPS at the time. And I still don’t know who he is. He’s not made that impression.”
  • “I feel the Labour Party were so behind after Jeremy Corbyn, we needed this big strong character, and there wasn’t one. People aren’t interested in what he could have done different, they need to know what he wants to do from now.”
  • “He’s an absolute tool. I wouldn’t trust a word that comes out of his mouth.”
  • “He’s not a likeable character. And I don’t like the fact that he just kind of… well, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and anyone could be in a good job if they knew every– they could predict the future, then obviously everyone could get the right answers.”
  • “I would struggle to recognise a picture of him.”
  • “Completely wrong man for the job.”
  • “He looks a bit of a weirdo.”

On social media, Starmer has been accused of being involved in the decision not to charge Jimmy Savile in 2009. Starmer was head of the Crown Prosecution Service when the decision not to prosecute was made, but the allegations against Savile were handled by the police and a reviewing lawyer who was not Starmer.

James Johnson told Times Radio that Starmer’s record as director of public prosecutions “doesn’t come up all of the time, but it does pop up every now and then” and it “could have a role” in a general election campaign, “especially if it was linked to voters’ existing concerns about the Labour Party and crime”.

More generally, the pollster said “this is one of the worst showings for Keir Starmer we’ve had in these focus groups” and “it would be very hard to take must solace from these if you were Keir Starmer”. He noted that there is “lots of focus on hindsight”, which has been Boris Johnson’s key line of attack on Starmer.

On the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the swing voters said:

  • “I’m happy with him because throughout the pandemic my business was on hold but then I got the [self-employment income support scheme] and I also got local council support”
  • “He comes across very informed and very knowledgeable and that to me is reassuring”
  • “Seems well-educated and knowledgeable”
  • “The proof of the pudding is going to be when… all this money has to be paid back”

On the economy, one participant said: “I don’t mind feeling the pinch, if that’s what we need to repay the debt. But I want it to be fair and I don’t feel it will be, but that’s a typical Conservative thing, that they’ll take it out on the little people and then the higher tax bracket won’t notice anything.”

James Johnson remarked: “If Labour can paint the Conservatives as doing this in an unfair way, then we could see things change. But you’ve got to remember that the person announcing these things is a very popular politician in Rishi Sunak.”

On Labour’s electoral prospects, the pollster described focus groups as a “snapshot” and observed that “voters are terrible at predicting their own future behaviour” and “the entire picture could change” at a general election, which “certainly happened in 2017” in a way that benefited Jeremy Corbyn.

But he also added that it is difficult to see Labour starting to do significantly better in the polls soon, because the Tories are being offered “protection from the pandemic”, Starmer appears to be getting a “very hostile reaction” from voters and Labour has “serious brand issues”.

The panel was made up of undecided swing voters split between Tory and Labour in the last general election. Asked to pick between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer, all chose the current Prime Minister. They were evenly divided when asked to choose Johnson or Sunak.

Starmer has a personal approval rating of -5, with 32% approving of the job he is doing and 37% disapproving, according to the Opinium polling conducted after Labour conference and published by The Observer at the start of this month.

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