Amid ongoing concern from Labour strategists about whether the party can hold on to the support of leave voters in marginal seats, focus groups conducted for the Guardian this week suggested Boris Johnson’s “get Brexit done” strategy was cutting through.
In Rainham in Essex, a group of leave voters, some of whom had voted Labour in the past, spoke warmly about the prime minister. And if his endlessly repeated mantra was familiar, warnings about his character appeared to have made less of an impact.
“I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but he cheers me up,” said Sarah (participants agreed to be referred to by their first names). “He’s like a puppy: you can’t kick a puppy,” said Norman . “He reminds me of a bog brush: I like him!” said Lisa.
Labour strategists are particularly concerned about the party’s appeal among its traditional supporters in Brexit-voting areas, who may be susceptible to Johnson’s signature pledge.
There was a sense among the leave group that the prime minister was capable of getting things done – an alluring characteristic to voters deeply frustrated by three and a half years of Brexit stasis.
“You don’t want someone indecisive,” said Michael. Asked to describe the Tories in one word or phrase, he said they were “bullish”. Asked what he meant by that, he said: “It’s good but it’s also bad. They’re just ruthless.”
The Essex seat of Dagenham and Rainham is held by Labour’s Jon Cruddas, with a majority of 4,652. Asked to identify the most pressing issues in the constituency, each group – leavers and remainers – came up with very similar lists: health service cuts, crime and affordable housing all featured prominently.
“It’s not for the likes of us,” said Lisa, a leave voter, referring to a housing development going up nearby on land that used to be part of Ford’s vast Dagenham plant.
Rather than blaming Boris Johnson and the Tory governments that preceded his, several of the Brexiters pointed the finger at Cruddas for failing to secure improvements for his constituents.
Cruddas held the seat in 2017 with a majority of less than 5,000; but the perception was that he doesn’t have to fight hard for it. “Every election time he’s probably sitting back in his seat, having a spa, thinking: ‘Yeah, I’ve got this in the bag,’” said Michael, to general laughter.
The leavers also raised questions about the slew of giveaways in Labour’s manifesto, from free broadband to restoring the pensions of Waspi women.
“Where is all this money, this funding, these people coming from?” said Elaine. “You can’t keep taxing working people.” Asked to come up with a single word or phrase that represents each of the two main parties, Labour was “broken promises” or “everything promised”.
There was a palpable nostalgia for the leaders of the past, who appeared more decisive. “Thatcher would have got you out, straight away,” said Lisa. Dave, a lifelong Labour voter, agreed. “While I didn’t respect her politics, I had a lot of respect for her as a woman,” he said.
At the end of the conversation, two of the group said they had voted Labour in the past, but were expecting to cast their vote next week for “Boris”.
The second focus group, composed of voters who supported remain in 2016, was more solidly Labour – the Lib Dems were barely mentioned, and several of Labour’s most eye-catching manifesto pledges had hit home, including free broadband.
Matt said deciding how to vote this time had been tricky. “I don’t know if Corbyn is the right guy to lead the country; but I do think he’s a damn sight better than any of the alternatives. It’s the best of a bad lot, really,” he said.
David agreed. “I’m Labour, but I don’t know if he’s the right man or the job. He doesn’t feel strong enough for me. He doesn’t give off a leadership kind of feeling.”
And among this group, Johnson was deeply unpopular – described as sneaky, and some of the things he says “really cringey”.
“He just doesn’t care,” said David, adding, “I can’t believe he’s prime minister: I don’t think he’s trustworthy; I don’t think he’s qualified for the job.”
Focus groups are small scale and can only provide qualitative insights; but they can help to shed light on the reasoning behind voters’ decisions, and are used by all main parties – including Labour.
Asked about where each of the leaders would go on holiday, for Jeremy Corbyn, the answer was a coach trip to Bournemouth; for the Brexit party’s Nigel Farage, the Cayman Islands; and for Boris Johnson, it was Las Vegas. “You’ll find him where he shouldn’t be, where he’s not meant to be,” said Michael.