“A sinking ship” was how Antonia, an administrator from Middleton, described Britain at the start of 2024. That assessment, while damning, isn’t unusual, with “broken”, “mess” and “struggling” the top words used to describe the UK today. But Antonia, and her fellow focus group participants – former Conservative voters from the “red wall” seats of Heywood and Middleton, Great Grimsby and Dudley North – weren’t planning on expressing their exasperation with the state of Britain by voting Labour. Instead, they were tempted by the successor to the Brexit party – Reform UK.
Since October, Reform has enjoyed a steady rise in support, hitting 10% in some opinion polls. While unlikely to win seats of their own, by attracting former Tory voters Reform could play the role of spoiler. An analysis by the thinktank More in Common suggests that at present polling levels Reform could enable more than 30 additional Conservative losses.
Given that potential to play an outsize role in the election, the focus group aimed to find out what was attracting voters to the shape-shifting party – and whether these voters would stick with them come election day.
Unsurprisingly, immigration was high on their list. Jordan, a technician, felt the UK’s “soft touch” attracted too many immigrants. Darron, a fraud prevention officer, expressed annoyance that people could no longer stay in the hotel where he got married because it is now used to house asylum seekers. Maria, a support worker, was worried after hearing about GP surgery funds being spent on translation rather than patients’ medical care.
Their frustration was compounded by a sense that politicians didn’t care or even wanted higher immigration to keep wages low. Asked what they wanted to be done instead to reduce immigration, the group supported an Australian-style points system – which meant Britain could still attract the seasonal, NHS and care workers they all felt were needed. They seemed unaware or unconvinced that the government had introduced exactly that.
Even so, immigration was not their top concern. For this group, as with almost every other, it was the cost of living that dominated; the fall in inflation was of little comfort as they still felt the pinch. Energy costs had become so bad that Dale, a train supervisor, and Steve, a pensioner, had taken to living as much as possible from their beds to reduce heating costs. Jordan worried at the end of almost every month whether his salary would last.
There was real anger towards those profiting from misery. Jordan said: “When you see the record-breaking profits [of energy companies] it’s like a kick in the nuts.” Darron fumed at “multinational corporations making billions and billions in profit and hiding their money offshore” and Dale said the public suffer while politicians’ “mates are doing well”.
In fact, immigration aside, when this group talked about corporate greed, NHS underfunding or the PPE scandal, you could be forgiven for presuming this was in fact a group of hardcore Jeremy Corbyn supporters, rather than voters tempted to back the populist right.
Their biggest dismay was with the UK’s politicians. On Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, they were unsparing, questioning how someone “worth a billion dollars” could understand working people’s concerns. Maria, a support worker, explained she had “broken ranks” in 2019 to vote Tory but under Sunak the party weren’t “looking after ordinary working-class folk”.
They were similarly unimpressed by Sunak’s Labour opponent. While the group expected a Labour victory this year, they dismissed Keir Starmer as “more of the same”, a “Red Tory”. Others thought (mistakenly) that he had defended Jimmy Savile and couldn’t vote for him as a result.
Two politicians did get better reviews. While questioning Boris Johnson’s judgment (“how can you trust someone happy to have Cummings as an adviser?” asked Darron), most shared the view of Maria, who felt that although the former prime minister had been “extremely naughty” she still had a soft spot for him. Lee, a builder, said he was refreshing and that he’d want him “any day” over Sunak.
The other politician to meet the focus group’s approval was Nigel Farage. Jordan felt he was “down to earth” and Emily found it hard to disagree with lots he said. Even Maria, who was disappointed she hadn’t seen the Brexit £350m, said she’d forgive Farage and give him another chance.
That absence of a Boris or Farage figure went to the heart of the group’s worries about voting Reform. No one could name Richard Tice, the current Reform leader, and at least half of the group felt that even if they liked Reform a vote for them would just let Labour in. Others took a different view – Antonia was happy to waste her vote “to show she didn’t want to vote for other parties” while Maria was “done with Labour and the Conservatives”.
If this group is anything to go by, the success of Reform UK and the damage they ultimately cause to the Conservatives will be determined by which of those sentiments wins out. Can Sunak persuade would-be Reform voters that they’ll be letting Labour in through the back door, or does anger with a “rigged system” make even a “wasted vote” a price worth paying to shake up the system?
Luke Tryl is the UK director of the research group More in Common