James Johnson is co-founder of J.L. Partners and a senior adviser to Kekst CNC. He previously ran polling in Downing Street under U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
Not much surprises me in focus groups these days.
Whether it was a literal fight in Walsall, or someone in Derby describing — in some detail — their crush on then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock, my poker face has only improved over the years spent talking to the British public.
Though less dramatic than a punch-up, something did catch me off guard recently. In a focus group of swing voters before Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s U.K. budget took place, I brought up the Treasury’s trailed increase to the minimum wage. Almost automatically, everyone in the room nodded approvingly. So far, so unremarkable.
But once the initial nods were over, the mood turned. People began to express frustration that the minimum wage hike would not help them. It might boost the pay of those in “more junior” roles in their organization, but not them personally. These were people earning slightly above where the minimum wage will now increase to.
Frustration then turned to resentment. “Us” hard working people, who have always put the effort in, get nothing, while “the cleaner” gets a big boost. Resignation set in. A shop worker said there was “no longer any point” in him continuing in his current job. He said he “may as well” quit, and do an “easier, lower-skilled job” for 50 pence less an hour, with shorter hours and less stress. It was this comment, said with such dejection and disillusionment, that really took me aback.
A policy announced to plaudits in Westminster had, when explored beyond surface-level, bombed with the quiet swing voters of provincial England. It’s a view I’ve heard again since the budget.
It’s not eroding the governing Conservative Party’s poll lead yet, but it speaks to a major risk in Sunak’s package and the general approach of Boris Johnson’s government.
The minimum wage uplift, plus more generosity in the Universal Credit welfare benefit for those in work, may well be the right things to do. But the voters the Conservatives need to keep on board increasingly feel overlooked. They are not wrong: analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, although the poorest six income groups in the U.K. stand to benefit, middle-earners are set to lose out from the budget. There is also a cost-of-living storm on the way.
Despite Westminster’s perception of critical voters being ex-miners and factory workers, the people the Tories really need to hold at the next election are not on the breadline. Only one in five new Conservative voters in the “Red Wall” — seats traditionally held by Labour which switched at the last election — are either unemployed or in unskilled blue-collar jobs. The rest sit across the income scale, with more than half in the “C1C2” social grades, meaning they are in skilled blue-collar jobs or unskilled white-collar employment.
Ordinary working-class families, the “squeezed middle,” the “just about managing” — call them what you like. These are the people that Boris Johnson spoke to so convincingly in 2019 but now risk falling under the Tory radar.
New polling by J.L. Partners and POLITICO, which surveyed 2,004 U.K. adults between October 29 and 31, shows it’s not just the occasional focus group respondent who feels this way, either.
Only 15 percent of those polled said the budget would help people like them, with 54 percent saying it would not. And, asked who the budget most helped, 39 percent said it most helped people on higher incomes than themselves, while 20 percent said it was best for people on wages lower than them. Only one in ten of that key “C1C2” group said Sunak’s budget helped people on the same incomes as they are.
The worst outcome for the Conservatives is that these voters feel they’re missing out while an undeserving poorer group and an undeserving richer group do well.
If you are in Labour HQ, this is an opening. The opposition will no doubt be hearing the same in their focus groups, run by pollster-turned-top Labour strategist Deborah Mattinson. There are some signs Labour understands what’s going on, with Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’ response to the Sunak’s budget channeling these themes.
The problem is that Labour’s current leader, Keir Starmer, is not a convincing embodiment of working class indignation. Written off by many swing voters as weak and inauthentic, he’s failing to expose this Conservative weakness. Starmer’s unpopularity, and Labour’s economic credibility problem, mean that the Tories remain buoyant in the polls.
This is hardly a doomsday scenario for the Conservatives. But Sunak and Johnson are missing an opportunity. They are delivering policies that might look popular, but are not speaking to their new voters. It is not that these voters want measures like the UC change and the minimum wage rise to be scrapped – but that they want the government to find things that help those sitting just above the threshold too.
We have been here before. As strategist James Frayne warned soon after the Brexit referendum, “politicians have preferred to focus on smaller groups of voters that are more interesting to the media and that have lobby groups campaigning loudly for them” rather than the needs of provincial England. In 2019, many of these voters felt something had changed. Now they are questioning that once more.
If the Tories put these people back at the top of their priority list they can keep their hold on British politics. If not, it will slip out of their fingers unnoticed.