This election comes at a time when there is much to fix. BritainThinks’ Mood of the Nation study, reported here in the summer, laid bare the deep pessimism felt by many, especially the young. Asked to describe Britain at the start of the campaign, the words chosen in focus groups were “divided”, “confused”, “angry” and “broken”.
The electorate is weary. Faith in politics and politicians – never high – is now at an all-time low. Just 6% say that politicians understand “people like me”, Boris Johnson has poorer ratings as PM than any of his recent predecessors at a similar stage in their premiership, and Jeremy Corbyn has the worst opposition leader ratings since polling began. Nearly three-quarters (74%) now believe that our politics is “no longer fit for purpose”.
“What have you picked up about the election so far?” I asked a focus group of undecided voters last week. Although they had plenty to say about policies, parties and politicians, their confident chatter died away fast. Eye contact was avoided. No one could think of anything that related to the campaign.
A recent poll found a similar lack of engagement. Four thousand voters were asked what “incidents, events, stories etc” they had noticed. The winning score, at 42%, was for “none”. In second place came the 5% mentioning Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Grenfell remarks. Just 2% mentioned “Brexit” and 1% NHS funding.
We know from previous campaigns how little attention voters, especially those crucial, undecided voters, pay to policy detail. Instead, they fall back on broader, longstanding impressions of parties and leaders, and who they trust most to deliver on a small number of priority issues. Right now their top three are Brexit (well, actually, making Brexit go away), the NHS and crime.
It follows from this that it really doesn’t matter what is in the manifesto if voters don’t believe you’ll make good. Here, less is more. This was Labour’s thinking in 1997, where the offer was successfully boiled down to five crisp pledges, each symbolic of its approach in that policy area. In focus groups then, undecided voters could recite all five pledges word for word.
By contrast, researching what went wrong for Labour back in 2015, it was clear that the party’s apparent proliferation of promises had denied it both visibility and credibility. There was scant understanding of what was on offer: it was simply too much to take in. Voters were disparaging about Labour’s “giant wish-list”, believing that the party had thrown caution to the wind and was “spraying policies” – and money – around. Despite growing concern about austerity there was scepticism that promises would be kept and anxiety about the impact on the economy.
We have yet to see the 2019 manifestos but, while no one’s campaign has got off to a particularly good start, the Tories’ message of “getting Brexit done so we can focus on…” seems to be hitting the spot more accurately than Labour’s more diffuse change message: leaflets distributed last week featured no fewer than 66 policies on the back page.
Against the backdrop of national gloom, voters crave a return to normality. We asked focus-group members to recreate Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan for the UK filling in the blank: “make the UK … again”. They chose “calm”, “normal” and “one nation”. However, expectations are low. More than half (58%) do not believe that this election will “get Brexit done”: the prerequisite to sorting everything else. Almost three-quarters (72%) believe the country will become even more divided in the year ahead.
Most see significant shortcomings with all of the electoral options on the table but fear the continued chaos of a hung parliament even more. The most optimistic moment in last week’s group was when someone suggested a leaders’ penalty shoot-out to achieve a decisive result. At last we’d found something everyone could agree on.
Deborah Mattinson is a founding partner of BritainThinks, a research and strategy consultancy