When former Labour voters liken a Labour leader to Worzel Gummidge, it is not a sign that the party is heading into government. When they are in a crucial marginal seat like Nuneaton, the party has a problem. To win in 2020, Labour needs to win in Nuneaton.
The focus groups we held in this key battleground seat are deeply disturbing for the Labour party. Voters see a leader who cannot lead, and a party that is divided, stands for nothing in particular and has done nothing to address the concerns that held people back from Labour in 2015. Most of these voters come from solid Labour families, moved to the Tories in 2010 or 2015 over the economy and immigration, and have stayed there because there is no reason to come back.
To avoid participants in the focus group from swaying each other, we asked them to write down what they thought of Jeremy Corbyn. The words: ‘scruffy’, ‘unprofessional’, ‘boring’, ‘weak’, ‘beige’. Whatever magic allowed Corbyn to wow the Labour party and its supporters during the leadership election has passed these voters by. At best they see someone trying to go back to Labour’s roots, but that view is submerged under a sea of negativity.
A particular area of concern is foreign policy. Swing voters generally feel the Iraq War was a profound mistake, and it has badly tarnished their view of Tony Blair. However, they do not see Jeremy Corbyn as an antidote to Labour’s past errors. Instead they see someone incapable of standing up for the country. As one person said ‘imagine him in the White House – he’s like someone who got lost from the tour.’
Corbyn may be Labour’s most pressing problem, but he is not the only challenge the party has to overcome. The groups revealed no progress on the problems that stopped people voting Labour back in 2015. The party was felt to be profligate and have little respect for values like hard work or contribution. The party of organised labour is now seen as a party on the side of those who choose not work. It has lost its sense of patriotism.
While today’s Labour party has no hope of representing Nuneaton, there remains hope for 2020. Voters are far from being in thrall to the government. There is little sense of their agenda beyond steadying the ship of state by dealing with the deficit. Boris Johnson is seen as a smart quirky joker, not PM material. George Osborne is seen as ‘sneaky’ and there is little awareness and even less approval of Theresa May. A decade in power is seen as plenty of time to be judged on their record. They can no longer claim to be clearing up Labour’s mess. UKIP is seen as a legitimate protest vote, not a serious alternative government. Voters continue to see Labour as the only other real game in town,
To succeed, Labour will need a leader that more closely matches what voters are after. They hanker for someone like Obama or the early Blair – dynamic, young, in touch, strong willed. A background outside politics, for example in the military or as a prosecutor, or simply doing an ordinary job was welcomed. If Labour can find such a leader, and they can set out a strong agenda that serves the interests of everyday voters, then the party is in with a shot. Carry on as it is – divided, focused on irrelevant issues, weak – and it may as well pack up.
James Morris is a partner at Greenberg Research and conducted focus groups for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. Ian Warren was a data advisor to the Labour Party. Their report is here.