Uxbridge and South Ruislip focus group: Labour has more to do to set out its stall

Elliot Chappell
© Rupert Rivett/Shutterstock.com

Conservative voters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, the seat represented in parliament by outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have shared their thoughts on the Labour Party, the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ and the Tory leadership election.

In a focus group of usually Tory voters, commissioned by LabourList and moderated by Public First on Tuesday evening, participants said they liked Labour’s commitment to “tax fairly, spend wisely” but remarked that the promise was “too vague”.

Voters in the focus group also expressed general scepticism in relation to the Conservative leadership candidates’ pledges to cut tax, doubting whether the government would actually deliver on them.

The group was made up of Tory voters who either voted Labour in the past or would consider doing so. One had voted Tory in every election, four had voted Labour once and three backed Labour consistently with until the 2019 election.

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.

The discussion suggested that Labour has more work to do to set out its case and turn Tory voters Labour. One of the group said that they would “sway more towards Labour” at the next election, two said they would vote to retain Johnson as their MP, others said they would back the Tories and one said he was “not sure”.

The group were markedly positive towards Johnson, with two saying they “feel sorry” for him, indicating that the outgoing Prime Minister and his actions during the pandemic will no longer be a useful attack line for Labour.

Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency has been consistently held by the Conservatives since its creation in 2010. Labour came within 5,034 votes of ousting Johnson in 2017 and the Tories secured a majority of 7,210 in 2019.

Tory response to the cost-of-living crisis

“They have done a little bit,” one participant, who had been a Labour voter until the 2019 general election when he voted Tory, said. Asked whether the government had done “enough”, however, he added: “Definitely not, no… the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, the divide is getting bigger.”

Two of the group highlighted large profits made by oil-producing companies over the past two years with one person, who voted in Labour in 2010 but for the Conservatives in every general election since, suggesting that there should be “some sort of a cap on how much profit they can make”.

She added that it would be helpful for the government to “get in a normal person, if there is such a thing”, and argued that politicians “live in a different world to us” and the we need someone to “come in and state the obvious”.

Another within the group said Rishi Sunak would try and use his former position as Chancellor throughout much of the crisis so far as a “gain to be the Conservative leader”, but told the researcher: “I don’t really understand how he was going to be the one to get us out of it when he was the leader of the whole thing, basically.”

Some expressed scepticism that Sunak could relate to the experiences of ordinary working people facing price rises. One said: “It’s hard for me to think that he really does know the average person that is struggling day to day because he obviously him and his wife are so wealthy.”

Boris Johnson – “I actually feel sorry for him”

The group’s thoughts on their local MP were markedly positive. Two were quick to tell the researcher that they felt sorry for the outgoing Prime Minister. One one-time Labour voter in 2010 argued that “the whole world was against him”. Others added that he had done a “good” or “amazing” job and that his leaving is a “shame”.

Another, who has voted Conservative in every election except for 2017, said he been faced with an “unprecedented situation”. “He’s done a good job. I don’t know what the other party leaders would have done in the same situation,” she added.

One of the group, an accountant who voted Labour in all elections except 2019, thought the Prime Minister “should have resigned a little while ago” because “he didn’t have control” of his party anymore. She also remarked in reference to the successful vaccine programme that “anyone could have done that in his position”.

The group generally agreed that Johnson should not have broken the rules but did not place much significance on his actions. It wasn’t like he was having champagne fueled, you know, bashes you know, he did what he did, in my opinion, wasn’t that bad,” one told the researcher.

The participants placed more importance on the fact that the Prime Minister denied the parties had happened. “If he’d come clean at the start he may well have got away with it. But I think the fact that he kept lying about it, you know, has been his own downfall,” one said.

Asked whether their politicians having ethics and morals are important to them, several replied in the affirmative but there was general agreement that all politicians lack integrity. One, who consistently voted Labour until the 2019 election, described being untrustworthy as “part of their makeup”.

One simply put it: “All politicians, they’re all in the same boat. I don’t think anyone that is on the political scene today can actually be trusted. I think they’re all as bad as each other. They all talk the talk to get themselves into power and then it’s all a big letdown anyway.”

Conservative leadership election – “distracting”

Awareness of the Conservative leadership, apart from a sense it is preventing the government from tackling the cost-of-living crisis, was low. Participants knew of Sunak primarily through his role as Chancellor and knew little about Liz Truss.

Appraisals of the contest were negative, with participants variously describing the race to determine who succeeds Johnson as Tory leader and Prime Minister as “squabbling”, “distracting” and a process “becoming a slanging match”.

Again, low trust in politicians featured prominently in the participant’s comments, with one telling the researcher that they “all promise everything”. Another commented that even though Sunak seemed “quite honest” and “straightforward”, politicians “all promise the world, don’t they, beforehand”.

Sunak was favoured by the group, mostly by virtue of being “the only one I can say I know”, as one person put it. But several in the group criticised the former Chancellor for “stabbing Boris in the back” when he resigned as from the cabinet. One said Truss “gets more browny points because she actually stayed in her job”.

Another liked Truss because she is “not all razzmatazz” and “just wants to get the job done”. Two within the group told the researcher approvingly that the Foreign Secretary reminded them of Margaret Thatcher.

Tory tax cut promises – “I don’t believe that you can cut taxes”

Tory leadership hopefuls have made various promises to cut taxes over the past two weeks. Voters in the focus group did not object to the idea, but there was general scepticism about whether the government would actually deliver on them.

“I don’t believe that you can cut taxes, you need to the money needs to come in, because they need to pay for whatever is going on out there,” one said. Another added: “Even if they cut income tax, that money has got to be claimed back from somewhere.”

Several raised concerns about how the government would pay for expenditure, including repaying debt accrued during the pandemic, if it cut taxes. Two in the group suggested that taxes should fall more on those who could bear it better, with one saying that it “would be nicer if they took from the people who it didn’t matter”.

One consistently Tory voter, except for the 2017 election, said: “Unless they take it from the top percent of people who are the richest, then unfortunately it’s not really going to make any difference to us as just the general public and Joe Bloggs.”

Labour – still needs to set out its stall

Participants were read a short statement made by Rachel Reeves, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, in which she accused the Tory leadership candidates of “indulging in unfunded fantasy economics”, that they are no longer the party of “economic responsibility ” and that Labour would “tax fairly, spend wisely and grow our economy”.

The statement, which encompassed several of the recent attack lines used by Labour, was described by focus group members as “unsurprising” and a “bog-standard statement” that you might expect from an opposition party.

Pressed on what they liked about the comments, the group approved of the “tax fairly, spend wisely” commitment but there was a general sense that the pledge was “too vague”. “Who defines what taxing fairly and spending wisely is?” one asked. One thought that “tax fairly” means that “everyone’s going to pay a lot more tax”.

“This statement could be could have been at any moment in time,” one participant who had voted Labour in every election except for 2019 argued. “It doesn’t really give me any facts or figures or what they’re gonna do or why they don’t feel like the Conservative Party is doing the right thing.”

Participants indicated that Labour’s line on the Tories ‘being the party of low growth’ had not cut through. One offered the view that the UK has experienced “pretty strong growth” until the pandemic. Another argued the economy does not need to be “rebooted”, as Reeves had said, but “put back on track a little bit”.

The prevailing sense from the discussion was that participants did not yet know what Labour would do in power. One told the researcher that he is “still not absolutely clear of what [Starmer] stands for” while another characterised Reeves’ statement as “too broad”.

Keir Starmer recently told an event that the Labour Party is “starting from scratch” on its policy offer after having “put to one side” the 2019 election manifesto. His first conference as leader was largely devoted to rule changes and the next party conference in September is expected to focus more on policy.

Achieving net zero – important, but people need “more time”

Comments from Tory leadership candidates have indicated that they would support reneging on the UK’s commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Focus group members were asked if the target was important to them and if they would be troubled by deviation from hitting the goal.

Participants told the researcher that reducing emissions was “important” but generally did not express strong feelings about the objective of hitting net zero by 2050. One though it would be a “good thing” to push the deadline “so people have more time”, commenting specifically on the impact of the ULEZ charge in London.

“In an ideal world we’d all love it to be done sooner, but realistically and financially I think it’s better if it’s put off,” she said. Another said he wanted to see the government evidence “real action” rather than necessarily keeping to 2050.

One argued that it is important but that it “has to be done right”, citing the recent High Court ruling that the government’s net zero strategy was unlawful because it failed to specify how its policies would result in net zero being reached. “Everyone can fudge the figures,” he told the group.

Again, distrust in politicians to deliver on what they were promising was prevalent. One focus group member said it would be “great if we did do it” but added that the commitment to net zero by 2050 is “over promising, under delivering”.

One group member worried that the target has “gotten lost because of what’s currently going on” and said the government should “spell out more” how people could contribute to achieving the goal, perhaps by distributing a “simple leaflet”.

The study in Uxbridge and South Ruislip forms part of a series of focus groups commissioned by LabourList and carried out by Public First, bringing you insights from constituencies across the country as we approach the next general election.

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