Labour Party for the 'down and outs, not people like me', secret focus group research finds

Exclusive: Labour focus groups reveal public hostility towards the party

Andrew Grice
Tuesday 20 October 2015 20:15
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Former leader Ed Miliband was seen by key voters as 'weak and bumbling'
Former leader Ed Miliband was seen by key voters as 'weak and bumbling'

Labour must tackle its “deep and powerful negatives” on the economy and welfare to have a chance of regaining power, according to secret research conducted for the party.

The damning findings, obtained by The Independent, show that swing voters who have deserted Labour see the party as standing “for down and outs, not people like me.” The research found that Labour’s only strength is its values. While the party is viewed as “nice,” it is still “in thrall to the undeserving” and “in denial about its ‘appalling’ track record on the economy”.

The document, part of Labour’s inquiry into its crushing defeat at the May general election, said Ed Miliband was seen by key voters as “weak and bumbling”. One described him as “a dork” and another as “having the appeal of a potato”. Some people said he would have been a “laughing stock at home and abroad” as prime minister and sensed that he lacked the full support of his party. However, the voters’ scathing assessment is unlikely to be published by the party in order to spare his blushes.

The report concluded that Labour “must atone for its past, especially on the economy” and “be competent”. It needs “to be for middle class voters, not just down and outs.” Voters have “no idea what the party stands for”, it said, and Labour must revitalise its brand in order to be “about the future, not the past.”

Ten focus groups were conducted after the election, and the researchers say voters’ perceptions have not changed since. They present a major challenge for Mr Corbyn on the economy and welfare. Labour’s new left-wing leader has opposed the Government’s £12bn of welfare cuts and rejected what he called Mr Miliband’s “austerity-lite” strategy. He will tackle more aggressively the voters’ view that overspending by the previous Labour Government caused the deficit, a theme which comes through strongly in the research.

Mr Corbyn’s strategy was strongly criticised by Lord (Norman) Warner, the former Health Minister, who resigned the party whip in protest. He said Labour was not learning the lessons of its defeat. “If it doesn’t change itself very rapidly indeed, it hasn’t a hope in hell of winning the election in 2020, or indeed in 2025,” he said.

Former Labour minister Lord Warner has resigned the whip in protest at the party's shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn

Labour’s research found that swing voters were relieved that the Conservatives won this year. Some said the Tories would take the tough decisions needed, “especially cracking down on immigration” – the main issue for many – and wanted “benefit scroungers” to be “penalised.” Some expressed the hope that David Cameron would use his renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership terms to reduce immigration –which now looks impossible for him to deliver. Some people backed the Tories at the last minute, saying they wanted to keep Labour and Mr Miliband out of power—and prevent a coalition between Labour and the Scottish National Party.

“Perceptions of the Tories as exclusively for ‘the rich’ (rather than the middle) are only really held in Scotland,” the report concluded. Although swing voters trust the Tories to make the right decisions, some are worried that the cuts may be “too close to home” and will affect them.

In Scotland, Labour is seen as “indistinguishable from the Conservatives,” and anger at Labour taking Scotland for granted had turned into a view that the party is “an irrelevance” and “firmly in the past….part of the heritage.”

Focus groups discussions were held in Watford, Croydon, Nuneaton, Edinburgh and Glasgow among people who had previously voted Labour but switched to the Tories or the SNP in May. They were conducted by Deborah Mattinson, who was Gordon Brown’s pollster before co-founding the BritainThinks consultancy.

She was commissioned by Harriet Harman, who was Labour’s acting leader until Mr Corbyn’s election last month, but she does not speak for Ms Harman.

The work was presented to Labour’s “learning the lessons taskforce” chaired by Dame Margaret Beckett, the former Foreign Secretary.

This was due to report last month but party sources say its work is “ongoing.” Ms Harman, who has said Labour must not “paper over the cracks”, is pressing for its findings to be made public but no decision has been made.

What swing voters who deserted Labour say about the party

* “[Ed Miliband] had the appeal of a potato” – man, Nuneaton

* “I didn’t trust that it wouldn’t go into coalition with the SNP…She [Nicola Sturgeon] was so strong, she would have wiped the floor with him, run rings round him [Ed Miliband]” – man, Croydon

* “Most people knew that Ed Miliband wasn’t even liked by his own party. How can you trust someone when the party doesn’t even trust them?” – woman, Nuneaton

* “It [Labour] made such a mess up last time, and all the Government is doing is cleaning up the mess” – woman, Watford

* “I didn’t vote for what I wanted, I voted against what I didn’t want…I didn’t want to vote Conservative but I didn’t have a choice” – man, Croydon

* “The people on Benefits Street would have done well out of Labour” – man, Edinburgh

* “A Labour win would have been good for the benefit ones and immigrants. Anyone claiming money” – woman, Croydon

* “I think the banking crisis brought it all home, didn’t it? I don’t think in 2005 people knew how much we were borrowing” – man, Nuneaton

* “Reassurance and [Labour] saying ‘we got it wrong, we have got it wrong in the past’ …would make me stand up and listen” –woman, Croydo

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