What do the focus groups make of Jeremy Corbyn?

He is authentic and principled - but where's the money coming from?

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Five things we learned from Corbyn’s conference speech

While the reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on Twitter was very positive – of the c.41,000 tweets about it, unusually for a political leader there were more virtual cheers than boos to the tune of three to one.  But what about the views of voters in the flesh? Ipsos MORI conducted two discussion groups with voters from Croydon Central – a key target for Labour – on the day Corbyn addressed conference to find out.

1.He’s one of us

A common refrain from participants was how Corbyn appeared to be “genuine” and someone that they could relate to. This was evident from both his image – participants noted his appearance was certainly less slick than his predecessors – but also his background. This experience lent him a credibility that they felt had been lacking from Westminster for some time:

"He’s one of us. To get to where he is he had to go through a lot. It’s like a new manager coming into work when they started in the post room – better that than a graduate trainee”.

His use of humour at the start of his speech was also disarming, and meant participants warmed to him; he appeared relaxed and unguarded which, in turn, enhanced his authenticity.

"I liked the way he acknowledged his coverage in the tabloids about the asteroid. You wouldn’t get Cameron making jokes about him being a pig shagger."

2.And it sounds like he is up for a fight

As much as he came across as being genuine, he was also described as passionate – both in terms of what he talked about, and how he talked about it. For instance, mentioning his treatment in the media from the outset indicated to participants that he would not court the press in the way that other leaders were thought to have done.

"He’s believable, he’s passionate – it’s the way he was talking about it. He wants to see change”.

It was his delivery, however, that really convinced participants that he believed what he was saying; that he spoke so forcefully suggested to them that he was talking about issues that were important to him and that he believed in, and this was appealing to them.

"He’s saying it with a lot of conviction – he believes that, you don’t just think it was for show”.

3.But the things Corbyn is passionate about don’t match up with key voter concerns

At least Miliband intended to talk about the deficit at the 2014 conference. This time, participants sensed the omission was because Corbyn only wanted to talk the things that mattered to him – not them. For example, his talk of human rights and a social Europe seemed unrelated to the issues they felt were facing the country.  

"The first thing he wants to talk about is a 17 year old boy in Saudi Arabia – I don’t know who he is! I have never heard of him. Why is this important to me?”

"A social Europe? What is that? Is that the EU? A lot of this went over my head. If they want people to vote, then they need to make it clear what they are talking about."  

Rather, they wanted to hear about things like the economy and immigration – and not in the context of the refugee crisis. And, on a day when our Issues Index shows the highest ever level of concern about immigration – mentioned by 56 per cent of all adults, up six percentage points from August and way ahead of the next most important issue, the NHS (36 per cent) – that they wanted these worries to be reflected is not surprising.

“What about immigration? This is an issue that’s happening now – we see it every day in the news – it matters!”

4.Where’s the detail – and where’s the money?

Judging by the views of the participants, it will be a long time before voters see the Labour party as competent stewards of the economy or believe that the country has any money to spend. A constant question among participants, therefore, related to how Corbyn planned to realise his policy aims – ones which they recognised would require significant investment. While some urged patience, suggesting that only a couple of weeks into the job he may not necessarily have fully costed plans available, for many the clock is ticking; they want detail, and they want it soon.

“He painted a nice rosy picture without giving too much detail of how it is going to be done. It almost sounds like he has this magic wand and council houses are going to pop up, and tuition fees are going to be paid, and everyone will have care when they’re elderly”.

5.And can Corbyn’s new politics deliver change?

Participants appreciated that Corbyn is offering something different – both in terms of his policies and how he would like politics to be conducted – and welcomed the more open and discursive approach to leadership he promised.

“These are his values, what he stands for – listening to people, letting everyone have their own opinion and debating it”.

However, they questioned whether this approach would help to deliver change; for some, his call for a kinder politics seemed almost too nice rather than forcefully holding the government to account on its record.

When he was saying stand up against injustice then he sounded like a leader…but then when he said he wanted a kinder politics he sounded all cosy”

And, building on this, many questioned whether he had the stamina to do the job in hand. Participants were surprised by how old he was – and though for some age was a proxy for experience, for others it raised concern about the demands the role would have on him.

“He has got good ideas but he looks so tired all the time…I just look at him and switch off. He just looks stressed and worn out”

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So, while participants took a lot of positives from Corbyn’s first speech to conference the problem remains that what he said was not enough to win back former voters – just the kind of people he will need to return to the fold if the party is to stand a chance of success in 2020. That there was no narrative arc to his speech also was an issue – rather than presenting a vision they could get behind, participants felt he just presented a long list of issues he wanted to address and they didn’t see how he could tackle them all.

“He mentioned everything….he can’t make a difference to everything. He should’ve just picked a few issues”

So, for now, the jury is still out – and voters will need to hear a lot more on both the issues they’re interested in, and how Corbyn’s plans are to be realised in the coming months if he is to gain their trust and, crucially, their votes.

 

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Ipsos MORI conducted two discussion groups on 30th September 2015. All participants lived around Croydon – a key target seat for Labour. In the first group, participants were aged between 30 and 50 and were from social grade BC1C2. All had voted for Labour previously, except for in 2015. In the second group, participants were aged between 20 – 30 and were from social grade BC1C2. They comprised a mix of those who did and did not vote in 2015 – but of those that had, none had voted for Labour. 

Suzanne Hall is research director at Ipsos MORI. She heads Ipsos MORI’s Qualitative Social Research Unit and has over fifteen years of qualitative research experience.