The Independent commissioned BMG Research to gauge how the public might respond to Jeremy Corbyn’s keynote speech at this year’s Labour party conference held in Brighton. Immediately after the speech, BMG conducted two in-person discussion groups to give Independent readers a flavour of the type of discussions that the speech will have provoked. Groups were balanced by demographics and political partisanship, but will not be an exact reflection of the nation at large. The video clips and summary below are designed to give a reflection of the content discussed in the groups who were ordinary members of the public.
Austerity, The National Economy & Nationalisation
When asked to choose between a ‘Capitalist Britain’ and a ‘Socialist Britain’, the majority of participants favoured capitalism, though to varying degrees. This included most young people, and a majority of those who voted Labour at the General Election in June. However, it is also worth noting that, for most, socialism was not treated as a ‘dirty word’. Many stated that its aims were desirable, but were perhaps a little too idealistic or utopian, whilst Capitalism was seen as both practical and necessary, despite its faults.
“I’m not against the idea of socialism as a, a concept, you know, it’s not a bad thing necessarily. But, I just don’t think it’s doable”
There wasn’t a strong sense of urgency on this proposal, but on balance, participants were sceptical about Corbyn’s promise to nationalise major industries. Some worried about the lack of “competition”, particularly the consequences this may have on prices. But others felt that it was a desirable outcome, especially in terms of improving UK national security. The main concern, however, was about how Labour would pay for the proposal and how it would work in practice. Participants that were more positive about the policy proposal tended to cite one of two advantages, compared with the status quo:
1. Unfair, or a perceived lack of control over prices
2. A disdain for foreign companies or governments owning British utilities
“Perhaps we don’t want our water companies owned by the French. Perhaps we don’t want our water companies owned by Canadian pension funds. We don’t want our electricity companies owned by the Chinese. And if you look behind the ‘nationalisation is bad’, you might actually say, well hold on, we’re better off us owning it, than the Chinese saying “it’s our company and we’re going to turn the switch off”
On balance, participants were not entirely convinced about the overall economic offer. A common concern, that was raised each time Corbyn cited a spending commitment, related to how the party planned to pay for each proposal. Some participants, contrary to Corbyn’s ‘mainstream’ claim, indicated that because of this, they felt Corbyn held views that were too radical for them.
Diane Abbott & Online Abuse
On this subject, responses from voters in the Leave and Remain groups were vastly different. Leave voters tended to find Corbyn’s defence of Abbott as an attempt to cover for her mistakes/failures during the election campaign. In other words, for this group, Corbyn’s discussion of misogynistic and racist abuse online was merely a distraction or sideshow. Some of these participants were also doubtful about the extent to which Abbott had received abuse online, and were wary that claims of abuse could have been exaggerated or the offense feigned. It was clear that an interview during the campaign, in which Abbott made errors about the cost of recruiting new police officers, had really cut-through with participants – many recalled the event unprompted.
“I think it’s just come across as quite aggressive there. I think he was just using the fact that she cocked up, Diane Abbott…to bring the abuse into it and stuff, I just thought well, why are you making that part of your speech?”
Some participants also suggested that Corbyn was being hypocritical, citing the “abuse” of more moderate factions within the Labour movement, as well as recent anti-Semitism allegations.
By contrast, participants in the Remain group tended to be highly supportive of Corbyn’s praise for Abbott, and very pleased with Corbyn’s condemnation of online abusers and ‘cyber-trolls’. One participant detailed how they had witnessed first-hand the abuse and were shocked and appalled.
“I was very active on Twitter when Diane Abbott was receiving the abuse, and I thought it was disgusting. The things that people were saying were really horrible; racist, sexist, misogynistic, really disgusting and I’m really happy that he pointed that out and sent out a very clear message.”
On the UK leaving the EU there was a real sense of frustration from a handful of Remain voters about Corbyn’s perceived “absence” during the referendum campaign – some questioned why he was starting to talk about Europe now? In general, Remain voters appeared to unenthusiastically accept the fact that Brexit is happening, and that the country should make the best of it.
“To be quite honest, I don’t think he’s fussed now. He’s just at a point where he’s thinking, it’s going ahead, let’s just try and find a better deal, so I don’t understand why both parties are at loggerheads, when now, it’s not like they are fighting for power in that respect, they should just fight for the best deal for the whole country”
Although there was a lack of trust in both negotiating teams, it was clear from both groups that participants did not feel that Labour would be more competent Brexit negotiators, often citing a lack of clarity about what the Labour position was on Brexit. It is also fair to say that Leave voters tended to distrust Corbyn on Brexit, and did not feel that he would respect the result.
Housing & Rent Control
This theme was one of the more positively received for both groups. The rent control announcement was received fairly positively by most participants, although there were some concerns about its feasibility. One participant mentioned that, even as a landlord, he had no problem with rent controls, but suggested that taxing land-banking practices may not have the desired effect as companies will simply shift their practices to other areas to maximise their profits.
There was a clear generational and tenure divide; with those in rental market, or living with parents, expressing very enthusiastic comments about Corbyn’s housing promises, when compared with homeowners.
“I can’t afford to move out, I’m at home still. It’s not through choice. A lot of the jobs out there at the moment are the next best thing up to zero-hour contracts. All the jobs at the moment seem to be eight-hour contracts. It’s just box-ticking, so they can say that we don’t do zero-hour contracts anymore, but you can be working 30 hours one week, your five hours the next, and I can’t move out on that”
Some participants also revealed that they saw the mention of Grenfell as exploitative, and weren’t supportive of its use.
Are Labour the political “mainstream”?
Most people didn’t think that Labour was in the political mainstream, but suggested that among young people he was very popular. Younger voters and older voters recognised early on that they had very different interests, and at times struggled to understand why the other felt so strongly about Corbyn in the opposite direction to them.
Older voters felt that young people didn’t understand what type of person Corbyn really was, and that they had no awareness or didn’t care about his history. The implication being that they were being swept-up in the excitement of Corbyn’s transformation and perhaps it was just a phase.
“It is a generational thing isn’t it, you know, he’s slightly captivated the kids with dangling a few bits and pieces that look a bit appealing and, yes, perhaps more people of that generation are taking a bit more notice”
Younger voters however, tended to portray that the Brexit vote occurred mainly because of older voters, and they felt that Brexit prompted younger voters to engage more with politics, and this year’s General Election in particular.
“I just think it’s exciting that more younger people are engaging, and talking about it as well, and we are seeing more younger people vote”
There was a clear recognition that Corbyn is a serious contender to be the next Prime Minster. Some participants, mainly older, were petrified of what they saw as an increasingly likely chace that Corbyn would end up in number ten. By contrast, Remain voters tended to exude a sense of hope about Corbyn’s Labour party, often portraying him as part of the ‘future’.
An article by the Independent on our analysis, including a highlights video, can be found here.
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BMG conducted two in-person focus groups on the Wednesday 28th September. A few hours after Jeremy Corbyn had finished delivering his 2017 party conference speech, clips of key moment/highlights were grouped into sets of ‘themes’ and shown to participants. After each set of clips were shown, participants were prompted into a discussion and asked for their reaction, before themes relating to the content of the clip were explored in more detail.
1 x Remain Group
1 x Leave Group
A mix of Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and Non-Voters were selected. Most participants stated that they “would consider” voting for both Labour & the Conservatives, or they had voted for both parties since 2005. There was a mix of gender, ages, social grades & ethnicities.
All participants reside in the West Midlands
Dr Michael Turner – Research Director
Robert Struthers – Senior Research Executive