Throughout the election, Ipsos MORI has been talking to people right across the country – from Conservative voting Remainers in Bedford through to traditional Labour voters in Halifax. By talking – and, crucially, listening – to a diverse group of the public we have been able to identify some important trends which help unpick Thursday’s shock result.
Corbyn couldn’t help but exceed expectations…
The polls before the election had been called weren’t wrong; Corbyn was just not seen as a credible leader, including by die-hard Labour voters. As one participant explained,
when I see Corbyn on the telly, I turn it over
while another spoke of how they thought he
– something they thought would be his undoing in any Brexit negotiations.
But, a campaign veteran, throughout the six weeks of the election he confounded expectations. That he did so facing an extremely hostile press conferred respect; participants perceived that the playing field wasn’t level, and started rooting for the underdog. As one said during election week:
My opinion of Corbyn has gone up – every question he’s had thrown at him, he’s answered and explained himself. I was undecided about Jeremy Corbyn but, this election, he’s done well.
And more than that; he genuinely connected with voters. They saw in him someone who would be on their side; the campaign message that the Labour party is for the many and not the few cut through:
He cares for every person who lives here. He is not afraid to fight the “system" that belongs to the very few at the top. He sounded more like a true leader. He will stick his neck out for the poorer and deprived.
A new kind of politics…
Following on from his successful campaign to become Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn promised a new kind of politics, promising not to participate in the practice of “throwing theatrical abuse across the floor of parliament”. His campaign worked on the same lines, and the difference with the approach taken by the Conservatives was striking to our participants. For Labour voters, his refusal to engage in personal jibes and stick to policies made him seem like a man of both principle and substance. It also raised questions about what exactly the Conservatives offered if they had to resort to insults:
What else has she got, she’s just throwing out the insults, you don’t hear Jeremy Corbyn saying ‘oh Boris Johnson has done this or done that…’
But the interesting thing was how the Conservatives' approach failed to inspire even long-standing supporters. They wanted more positivity, and a focus on policies rather than personalities. As one participant said:
I find it boring and off-putting when parties and the leaders slag each other off.
Another participant endorsed this sentiment, saying:
I would rather they focus on the positive and what they're doing, and how they're different, without having to be negative about others.
And voters thought they were being played…
Theresa May said that she called the snap election to "guarantee certainty and stability". There was some support for this. With the stakes so high in the imminent Brexit negotiations, a few participants believed that she was trying to do the right thing by the country by strengthening her party’s mandate. As one said:
Theresa May called the election because she’s asking us to choose who is going to stand up for us all and who is going to get the best deal. She’s a businesswoman, she’s here to make the best of a bad situation.
For many though – and particularly as the campaign progressed – there was scepticism among participants about her motives. They saw her calling of the election as a tactical move designed to deliver a Conservative landslide by capitalising on Labour’s poor ratings in the polls. These voters however, tired at having to go to the polls for an election they didn’t deem necessary, refused to be taken for granted:
She’s quite clever, to ask for this election, but as the time has gone she has shot herself in the foot.
People have reached a tipping point with austerity…
Corbyn spoke directly to the concerns that voters had; chiefly, that austerity measures are looking less like an economic necessity and more like an ideological choice. As one participant explained,
They tend to hide behind that … you hear about austerity measures … it just means cuts, cuts, cuts
with the NHS thought to be particularly at risk. Compounding this, seven years of austerity measures have hit people hard. Our participants repeatedly told us they were just coping financially; that they had no savings to fall back on and paying the bills and housing costs was tough. What’s more, these things had got harder over time; there was widespread agreement that living standards had fallen.
That is not to say that they found all the answers in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party; doubts about the party’s economic credibility persist. Although many of Labour’s manifesto pledges were liked, there was scepticism as to how the books had been balanced, even from those who had supported Labour in the past. The proposal to abolish university tuition fees was suggested as one area in which Labour may not have done its sums. People liked what Labour was offering, yet they couldn’t quite believe it. As one participant explained:
I just feel like we’re being given a huge menu … a shopping list, but who will pay for it?
However, while there were serious misgivings about how all of Labour’s policy commitments would be costed, they offered the one thing missing from the Conservative manifesto: hope.
And there are doubts about the Conservative Party rebrand…
Even in groups today, participants too young to have been born under the last female Prime Minister talk about Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher. So the Conservative manifesto commitment to cut free school meals felt like more of the same; and made already struggling families fearful for their future. As one mother explained:
How does she want to help us when she wants to take them [free school meals] away?
From the dementia tax through to fox hunting, the conservative manifesto set off alarm bells with the public that Theresa May’s team may still be ‘the nasty party’ in disguise.
The Tories throw in things like economy performing well yet that means nothing when they’re all on zero hours contracts or self-employed relying on food banks.
The young bite back – and other generations have got their back as well
There was a real sense of injustice about the opportunities that young people today are denied. From a prohibitively expensive university education to unaffordable housing and losing freedom of movement as a result of Brexit, participants were angered and saddened about the hand that young people have been dealt. Interestingly, it wasn’t just young people saying this. Older people, reflecting on the advantages that they had had, spoke of how – this time – they’d be voting with future generations in mind. As one participant explained, they were supporting Labour because of the pledge to cut abolish university tuition fees stating that
If we look after our children today, that’s our future.
Few saw this result coming. That Jeremy Corbyn was able to successfully communicate Labour’s message outside of the Westminster bubble; that the Conservative’s promises for strength and stability failed to convince; and that the young defied expectations by turning out to vote gaining, perhaps, partial revenge for last year’s referendum result. But by engaging with voters throughout the course of the campaign we have been able to shine a light on what matters to them, and understand how the party strategies have been received on the ground. Listening to people around the country, it was possible to pick up the feeling that this election was not going according to the pre-ordained script. And so it proved when the when the polls closed. Whether these trends are to be sustained is difficult to establish but the public have fired a warning shot; whenever the next election happens to be, their votes are not to be taken for granted.