Wakefield focus group: A windfall tax is popular, but trust to deliver is low

Elliot Chappell
Wakefield, West Yorkshire. © Dawid Dobosz/Shutterstock.com

Conservative voters in a ‘Red Wall’ seat that Labour is hoping to win back have voiced their concerns over the cost-of-living crisis, and given their views on Keir Starmer and the Labour Party ahead of the upcoming by-election next month.

In a focus group of Tory voters considering backing Labour this time, commissioned by LabourList and organised and moderated by Public First, participants reacted positively to the party’s proposal for a windfall tax to help households struggling with the cost of living – but were sceptical that Labour would deliver.

The scepticism over Labour’s ability to deliver on the proposal was expressed in a session that was underlined by a general mistrust in politicians, which was evident throughout. One attendee described 12 years of “hot air” from Westminster and others complaining of numerous “over-exaggerated” claims from the government.

All of the eight participants, four of whom had voted Conservative in every general election since 2010, expressed anxiety over the cost-of-living crisis. “Money doesn’t seem to go anywhere,” one said. Another reported that life “feels like a real mess”, while one simply said there is “no good news at all”.

“There’s meant to be light at the end of the tunnel after that,” one said, referring to Covid. “All of a sudden, it’s a massive great hurdle once again – and I’m concerned for my immediate family, my extended family and for everybody around me.”

After the discussion, one voter was clear she would stick with the Tories in the by-election. One Conservative voter since 2010 and two who had voted Labour in 2015 and 2017 reported that they would vote Labour. The rest remained undecided.

Voters in Wakefield will head to the polls on June 23rd. Wakefield had been held by Labour for 87 years until the 2019 general election when Mary Creagh was ousted by Khan, who took the seat with a 3,358-vote majority. The by-election has been described by commentators as a referendum on the cost of living.

A focus group brings together a small group of people to answer questions in a moderated setting. The group is chosen due to predefined demographic traits, and the questions are designed to provide insights on certain topics of interests.

A windfall tax – “crack on”

A windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas companies came up unprompted in the discussion, and participants knew that Labour had been advocating for its introduction. They expressed strong support for the idea, seen as a way to support people in the midst of rising inflation without using taxpayers’ money.

Asked what they thought of the policy, one 42-year-old woman – who voted in Labour in 2010 and 2015 but the Tories in the last two elections, told the researcher: “Crack on. £600? Yeah.” Another chimed in: “Who’s gonna say no? As long as it’s for every single household, yes absolutely.”

Trust that the measure would actually be implemented featured heavily in the group’s response. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” one participant said, adding that “the fact that they’re offering is positive” but “without power, it’s just talk”. Another described it as “word salad” and “throwing a load of words on a sheet”.

Another specifically linked it to the coalition and successive Conservative governments in power since 2010: “I think this is 12 years of being told something that is just hot air. It’s just words for words’ sake. Once that’s ingrained in you, you see something and you just think, yeah more lying politicians. We’ll see.”

Another added: “It’s a trust thing. They are words. It’s about action… Anybody can say anything, but whether they deliver it is another thing. So who do you trust?”

The government response to the cost-of-living crisis – “laughable”

Participants struggled to name anything they thought was positive that the Tories are doing to combat spiralling costs. Several mentioned the mandatory £200 “loan” the government unveiled last year, with one describing the sum as “laughable”.

“I don’t think £200 goes anywhere,” another, who has consistently voted Tory in every election since 2010, said. “The government is letting us down in a big way.”

All but one of the group disapproved of the financial affairs of Rishi Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, who caused controversy after it was revealed that she has avoided paying income tax on cash earned overseas by claiming ‘non-dom’ status.

“I just feel like they’re making a mockery of us,” one said. “Those that are wealthy enough to have financial advisors and everything else – how to work the system – they benefit.” The one dissenting voice said that, if he had the opportunity to claim non-dom status, he would “grab it with both hands”.

Two voters in the group of eight knew that Conservative MPs voted last week against a Labour amendment calling for a windfall tax, with one describing the move as “quite puzzling”. Another, who had not been aware, said she was “gobsmacked”.

Johnson – “nothing good to say about him” but “better the devil you know”

“It’s been one let down after another. Johnson has done a poor job,” one said, arguing that the country has “gone downhill” and is “not a nice place to live at the moment” as a result of his government. Another person described the Prime Minister as an “absolute disgrace” in reference to the ‘partygate’ scandal.

“It’s not about parties. It’s the fact he lied – and he lied, and he lied, and he lied. And we know he’s lying, he knows he’s lying and he’s laughing at us,” he said.

“I can’t remember a time when his government or him has said something that’s not been either massively over-exaggerated or been a complete and utter fallacy, and I’ve got nothing good to say about him – nothing at all,” another argued.

More leeway was given on the pandemic response. One public service worker said she “can’t think of another government that would have done better”. Another told the researcher that it “wasn’t a great job” but Covid was “unknown territory”.

Participants were uncertain another party could do better, however. “What are our other choices? What other credible choices do we have?” One woman said. “Exactly,” another chimed in, as another added: “Better the devil you know.”

Labour – “I’m open to Labour”

“I’m open to Labour. I just feel like I’m looking for somebody with some conviction, some passion, some of their own authentic ideas,” one woman told the group. “Someone with genuine ideas and a drive, a vision for this country.”

She did not feel like Labour was that option at the moment, however, adding: “I don’t really see that in Labour. It’s just not there for me at the moment, personally.” Another said: “I don’t think there is one of them.”

Although Labour’s windfall tax idea was popular with the group, there was a sense in the group that Labour had been opposition for the sake of being oppositional. One said they were “not sure if they’ve got their own ideas at the minute”.

The party “have it all wrong”, one argued. “They’re playing again at the minute where all they’re doing is just, you know, the polar opposite to what was Conservatives,” they said. “They’re breaking the Conservatives’ toys so that their toys look better.”

Another participant told the researcher that he would be “going back to Labour”. After having voted for Labour consistently, the 40-year-old felt that he had made a “horrible mistake” in backing the Conservatives in the 2019 general election and that in the upcoming by-election he would try and “correct that”.

“Keir Starmer is – I’m neutral on him. I’m not against him and I’m not pro him,” he explained. But he thought that the pledge made by the Labour leader, to resign if fined for breaching Covid rules, “builds a tiny bit of trust”.

Starmer’s pledge to resign – “genuine and heartfelt”

Most in the group had not seen the pledge made by Starmer. But one participant who had said the way in which Starmer handled the ‘beergate’ allegations and the way in which Johnson had responded to partygate “made me trust Labour more and the Conservatives less when you look at how they handle the situations”.

“[Johnson] stood there in parliament and said ‘I have been assured that no rules were broken’, that there was no parties, and then you find out he’s been at several of them,” the voter said. “He lied, he blatantly lied to everybody.”

Another thought the changing Conservative narrative on the allegations had undermined trust, telling the researcher: “If they’d come out and said at that time, straightaway, ‘yeah I have done it’, then it would have been blown away… You know, what do they take us for?”

Shown a short clip of Starmer telling the public that he would resign if fined by the police, participants reacted positively to the commitment. One described him as “very sincere, very genuine” and said the statement made him related: “He could just be a friend of someone’s just talking.”

Another argued: “I found that genuine and heartfelt, to be honest. Boris to the best of my knowledge has never offered to stand down or anything like that. He’s always above everything else. And I think, possibly, I’ve just seen [Starmer] in a different light now, because I’ve not seen that before – and that is somebody who mirrors what we’ve been through.”

The study in Wakefield forms the first in a series of focus groups commissioned by LabourList and carried out by Public First. Over the next few months, we will be bringing you insights from key seats that Labour hopes to win at the next general election.

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