5 Dec 2019

The view from James Johnson, former No 10 polling adviser to Theresa May.

What happens between now and December 12th depends on a group of people in Labour seats in the North and the Midlands. A segment of the electorate that we tracked closely when I ran private polling at No 10, they remain essential to the Conservative Party’s route to victory.
They are older, long-time Labour voters. They voted Leave in 2016. They are working class, and more likely to be female than male. They are sceptical of the Conservative record on public services but they like Boris Johnson’s position on Brexit. They detest Corbyn. Whether they can be secured by the Conservatives or held onto by Labour is one of the key questions of the next week.

Previously assumed to be safe Labour voters, their new swing voter status means they will be at the heart of policymaking and political decisions over the coming years

But the importance of this group goes beyond polling day. Their views will be relevant for months and years to come. The Conservative Party is tracking them now and will continue to after the election. Previously assumed to be safe Labour voters, their new swing voter status means they will be at the heart of policymaking and political decisions over the coming years – which will also have an impact on business.

They feel they work hard, day in and day out, and pay their taxes. But they also feel others are not paying into the system. This can be the benefit claimant who should be at work. It can be the low-skilled immigrant, who seems to get priority over them. And, often, it is big business and the super-rich, dodging taxes and not playing by the rules.

This is a difficult climate for business to operate in. When I ran the polling at No 10, we consistently found that Conservative and Labour voters alike shared a negative view of capitalism – “greedy”, “corrupt”, “selfish” were commonly used words. Particularly on tax avoidance, the actions of a handful of firms have meant all business is smeared with the same brush. Beyond making clear the steps – in clear, tangible language – that your business has taken, we found that where possible, using the terms “British business” or “local business” or “high street business” generated much more positive sentiment than merely the word “business” alone.

While nationalisation of broadband has proven a superficially popular idea – especially with this new group of voters – Labour’s weak brand has meant that policies such as this have not been welcomed with the same enthusiasm as they were in 2017. Focus groups I have conducted show people still talk about Labour’s economic record and invoke the fear of it being “just like last time”. Corbyn’s competence is also called into question in a way that it was not at the last election.

But this is not to say that such rhetoric and policies will be defeated if Labour are. These swing voters do not dislike Corbyn because of his radicalism, but because of his inability to deliver those radical ideas. The most popular alternative Labour leader that we ‘tested’ in private polling was John McDonnell, not a moderate.

Regardless of the result, these newly unlocked, working class voters are not going to disappear from the Conservatives’ radar. If they win a big majority, there may be more flexibility for business to appeal to the PM’s ultimately pro-business instincts, but the Party will want to lock in these volatile voters in advance of 2024. And if the majority is small or non-existent, they will become the number-one priority in the event of a further election. One might see a toughening of the tone on business, akin to that seen under Theresa May, some direct market intervention akin to the energy cap, or further tax avoidance measures.

Whatever happens on December 12th, the key to getting to grips with the new government’s priorities on business will be to understand the voters both parties are desperate to win.