The political truism of 2023 is that nothing works. With delayed trains, the cost-of-living crisis, strikes and the seemingly unending political chaos surrounding Downing Street, few deny that Britain is broken.
What is spoken of less frequently is how people feel they too are broken, and what that means for Keir Starmer as he plots his course to power.
A poll carried out by More in Common for the launch of the New Britain Project, a left-leaning think tank, underlines the scale of the challenge for the next government and, in grim news for Rishi Sunak, how both middle- and working-class people are uniting behind the prospect of change and reform.
It might not be surprising that 58 per cent of the 2,000 people surveyed in mid May think nothing in the country works any more or that 76 per cent believe things are worse than they were in the past, given the sharp squeeze on living standards people are experiencing preceded a decade of austerity. But some of the other data is startling and personal. Forty-five per cent of Britons don’t think they are living up to their potential and 48 per cent feel they no longer have much control over the direction of their lives. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) think the social contract is broken and 57 per cent think Britain is preparing worse for the future than most other countries.
The Prime Minister’s electoral challenge is to hold together, at least partly, the 2019 coalition of voters in its traditional heartlands, the so-called Blue Wall, and working-class people in the Red Wall. The poll suggests the cost-of-living crisis has left these two groups worlds apart. More in Common split respondents into seven social groups, the closest to those working-class Red Wall voters being the “loyal nationals”. These people were more than twice as likely to say they felt insecure about the future (45 per cent) as “backbone conservatives”, many of whom are likely to be Blue Wall voters (18 per cent). Insecurity was almost as high (43 per cent) for “progressive activists”, middle-class voters more likely to live in a city or commuter town.
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What may worry Sunak the most is how voters answered a question about reform of public services to meet Britain’s challenges.
A “complete rethink” was supported by most loyal nationals (59 per cent) and a similarly high number of progressive activists (57 per cent). This figure fell to 36 per cent among traditional Tory voters, 52 per cent of whom said Britain could be fixed by “doing some basic things better”. Overall, respondents were split, with marginally more (45 per cent) saying reform was required than not (43 per cent).
Signs of Labour’s own electoral coalition first began to emerge in the May local elections. Councils in the largely middle-class areas of Kent and Wiltshire were turning red at the same time as huge parts of Lancashire and Staffordshire came back to the party.
The More in Common polling contained some troubling figures for Labour as well, however. For example, while only 24 per cent of people said they were confident the current government could provide the reforms needed to get the country out of its current mess, not many more (31 per cent) were confident Labour could either.
It is not clear whether this speaks to the malaise many Britons feel when thinking of the future generally – just 30 per cent said they felt optimistic about the future and 59 per cent thought politicians were too focused on short-term fixes – or whether Labour is still struggling to make a crucial connection. What the research is crystal clear about – and it may comfort Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, as she sets out “securonomics”, her radical answer to Joe Biden’s massive state subsidies for green technology, in Washington this week – is that nothing is off the table.
When asked about their red lines – what policies would make them categorically not vote for a party – people were remarkably permissive. Just 7 per cent would rule out nationalising utilities, for example, and 9 per cent would reject closer relations with the EU (in fact just 22 per cent said they would refuse to vote for a party that intended to re-join the bloc). Borrowing to pay for long-term public service investment was rejected by 11 per cent and “raising taxes, for any reason” by 33 per cent (though this last proposition was somewhat abstract). The most common red line was “privatising parts of the NHS, even if it were still free at the point of use” (34 per cent). Relaxing immigration rules was a red line for 21 per cent.
Starmer has so far united voters, across geography and class, in favour of reform. His bigger challenge will be to convince some chronically disappointed voters that change is even possible.
[See also: Why the Tories can’t take hope from 1991]