Notes from the battlegrounds

BritainThinks’ research shows that many of the issues consuming politicos are passing most voters by.

One of the delights of running political focus groups is returning to Westminster to tell political junkies how the ins and outs of party politics are being received by voters across the country. It’s always fun to hear politicos splutter and choke as they find out that no one has heard of Universal Credit, or see their eyes bulge as they struggle to comprehend that, for millions of voters, “free schools” are just assumed to be ones that you don’t have to pay for.

Our panel of swing voters across five key battleground seats, convened in partnership with the Guardian, are already offering some salutary lessons that should give political operatives and commentators alike pause for thought:

  1. It isn’t contradictory to be considering both UKIP and the Greens

 “I might vote Ukip this time. Or maybe Green” Steve, Taunton Deane

“I think a lot of people will feel like they can’t vote Labour or Conservative because they’re too shifty or for whatever reason. They could go to UKIP or to the Green Party…” Phil, Ealing Central and Acton

 For a Westminster villager, the idea that you could be weighing up whether to give your vote to the greens or UKIP seems totally confused, but that’s to miss two critical points: First, for many of our undecided voters, consideration of UKIP and the Greens is a response to the perceived lack of choice amongst the mainstream parties. At this stage, they know little more about them than that they look and sound different.

Second, voters often don’t think in terms of those ‘bundles of attitudes’ that make so much intuitive sense to the politically obsessed. For many of our panelists, voting green could just mean you’re interested in environmental issues and doesn’t necessarily read across to being internationalist and socially liberal, so it’s perfectly sensible to also be looking to UKIP if they seem to be speaking sense on immigration or the EU.

  1. Bacon sandwich moments pass more people by than you realise

 While he and Kay Burley seemed to get the joke, the studio audience hardly made a sound when Ed Miliband referred to bacon sandwiches (twice) during the first televised Q&A. Like the live studio audience, our panelists who were watching at home and sending in their thoughts and views via our mobile app, didn’t make a single comment on Ed’s bacon sarnie lines. The idea that Ed Miliband might not have the most polished presentation has filtered through to most of our panelists. But those fantastically awkward moments that provide so much entertainment and conversational fuel to politicos are rarely mentioned in our groups. In fact, these kinds of “in-jokes” often add to the alienation that voters feel from the business of politics as usual.

“All the parties are talking about things that aren’t that important. … It’s almost like a little show: ‘who can win the verbal war?’ They’re just talking to each other” Jon, Taunton Deane

  1. The polls aren’t big news for most voters

 Most swing voters don’t keep up with the polls. In Taunton Deane, the week before the campaign started properly, no one thought there was a possibility that Labour might form the next government,because the local race is so dominated by the Conservatives and the Lib Dems

 “Lots of election talk on radio and news today. Previously thought conservatives were a shoe in. Having seen the polls, for the first time think Labour have a chance as well” Paul, Taunton Deane (on first day of the Campaign)

 The upshot is that, even in battleground seats saturated by party activists, swing voters may not have much of a sense that their seat is critical for the outcome of the election. In Glasgow East, while some voters were acutely aware that voting with their hearts (SNP) could let in the Conservatives, others had no real sense that how Scotland votes this time around could determine the next government.

“I think we only get 50-odd seats in Scotland out of 600-odd in Westminster. We don’t have much of a voice.” Anne, Glasgow East

For political obsessives, each debate or story builds on the last, running themes are nodded-to and picked-up-on, and disparate political views hang together as coherent ideological or party positions. For the rest of the country, the thirtieth article tracing the evolution of a particular policy debate might be the first they’ve glanced at; and the latest gaffe endlessly bouncing around the echo-chamber of Westminster’s twitter timelines can completely bypass the attention of a swing voter in Dewsbury or Taunton Deane.