Deborah Mattinson, Britain's leading pollster and author of Talking to a Brick Wall, revisits the Harlow focus group for their verdict on the coalition government so far...
Talking to a Brick Wall tells the story of the New Labour years from the voters’ viewpoint.
Writing the final chapters during the 2010 election campaign, I set up a panel of swing voters in Harlow, Britain’s fifth most marginal seat. It was made up of people with consistent records of voting Labour (’97, ’01, even ’05) who were now undecided. They were the voters who would determine the election outcome. In the end, their own vote perfectly matched the result, with almost all switching to the Conservatives or Lib Dems.
My last panel session for Talking to a Brick Wall took place just after the Cameron/Clegg double act in the No. 10 Rose Garden. It received a warm reception:
Hopefully a fresh start for the whole country
In the last week of August I brought panel members together again to learn their verdict on the coalition so far. Had their expectations – so high in those honeymoon days – been met?<!--more-->
The focus group were impressed by the flurry of activity that had swept the nation since May. Yet, while some specifics (clampdown on benefit cheats, cutting civil service bureaucracy) were applauded, that early praise was muted.
Overall, it seemed that the coalition’s aim, beyond cutting the deficit, was unclear:
I’m confused about where this is all heading
You’d have thought all the cuts would give a clear direction but I’m just not sure
There was also an underlying anxiety, triggered by announcements about the VAT increase and ending the winter fuel allowance, that the coalition would not, as originally promised, look after ‘ordinary people’ and the less well off.
This was partly driven by perceptions of Cameron himself:
He looks like he’s enjoying this all a bit too much
He’s not in touch with ordinary people. He comes from a privileged background and doesn’t know what it’s like for ordinary people
And partly because the expected brake that the Lib Dem presence was expected to provide had not yet materialised:
Clegg has sold out
He’s a yes man – Cameron’s puppy dog
There were also worries about whether the economic strategy was the right one or whether it would provoke a ‘double dip’ recession. Concern was voiced about job losses and falling house prices.
We’re three months in – towards the end of the public opinion bounce that most new governments enjoy. All that hope is still relatively fresh in people’s minds, while Labour’s ability to provide effective opposition is clearly compromised by the leadership contest.
Right now, the Harlow panel jury is out, but they are already sending powerful warning signals that the government will ignore at its peril.
I shall be visiting Harlow regularly to monitor the voters’ verdict – watch this space.