Poverty and hardship are deepening, but both the major parties are currently largely silent on this agenda. In a bid to understand if this reflects a lack of concern for these issues amongst the voters that matter most to the parties right now, we spoke to key swing voters across a number of electorally important seats over July-August 2023 about these issues. We found that:
- Concern about levels of deep hardship and people going without essentials among this group is very high.
- People feel addressing these issues should be a top priority, but that politicians are not taking the issues seriously enough. Most voters saw very little distinction between Labour and the Conservatives on this agenda, with neither party demonstrating compassion and some feeling Labour have lost touch with their core values.
- There is a visceral power to talking about the issues of deep hardship and harnessing this agenda presents an opportunity for the parties to demonstrate they are listening to and in touch with the real issues people are concerned about. To be most effective, a focus on this agenda should be included as part of a wider plan for strengthening people’s economic security.
- Situating growth as the solution to hardship works well as a starting point, however, people will only fully buy into this when specific and tangible actions for how this would be achieved are included.
It is clear that, done well, harnessing and addressing the issue of hardship and deep poverty presents the main parties with a major opportunity to build a distinct, emotive and powerful pitch to the electorate, at a time where many feel there is little to distinguish them.
You don’t need to look far in Britain today to see signs of deepening hardship – whether it’s ever lengthening queues at local food banks, baby formula under lock and key in supermarkets, or the arrival of so-called ‘warm spaces’ over the winter.
A pandemic that forced low-income families to take on increasing debt, followed by the worst cost of living crisis in 40 years, has made things worse. However, the truth is that deep poverty was intensifying for many years ahead of these crises. Between 2002/03 and the eve of the pandemic (2019/20) the number of people in very deep poverty increased by 1.8 million to 6.5 million people - or from 8% to 10% of all people. Today, the combined effect of this longer-term trend and the most recent crises is leading to eyewatering levels of hardship: in June this year 5.7 million low-income households had to cut down or skip meals because they didn’t have enough money for food, while the number going without core essential items such as food, heating or basic toiletries has remained around 7 million for more than a year.
Getting ahead and tackling the root causes of these horrendous levels of deprivation must unquestionably be an urgent priority for any government. Failure to act will see the continued manifestation of such hardship in record food bank use and rising homelessness. Knock-on effects such as increased pressure on public services, and longer-term scarring impacts on children, productivity and communities will also store up further problems for the future.
There is currently, however, a notable lack of focus from either of the major parties on the sharp end of hardship and what needs to be done about it.
One explanation for this might be that concern for these issues is not being heard by party researchers and strategists as they listen intently to what the electorate says matters to them ahead of the next general election.
With this in mind, we set out to understand for ourselves what key voters think about these issues, as well as how they view the main parties' current positioning on this agenda.
To this end, we commissioned Public First to undertake five focus groups over July-August 2023 with financially insecure 2019 Conservative voters in swing seats. All participants were undecided about who they will vote for at the next election.
Why these voters?
While current national polling figures suggest Labour is on course to win a comfortable majority at the next election, recent MRP polling from Best for Britain considers a range of plausible scenarios that would reduce the likelihood of this. For example, if Reform UK were to stand aside in Conservative marginals (a reasonably likely scenario) and if undecided voters (currently the third largest voter bloc at 12% of the electorate) were to redistribute based on demographic calculation, the outcome would be more in hung parliament territory. History has also shown that polls typically tighten as election day approaches and certainly no outcome can be taken for granted.
It is clear therefore that, at this stage of the electoral cycle, winning over undecided voters - especially those who voted Conservative in 2019 but are open to voting Labour or Conservative now - will be of critical importance for both main parties.
Within this group, we focused on those who are financially insecure on the basis that, as Labour Together found in their recent report Red Shift economic insecurity is a strong draw factor towards Labour. As such, this group will be both high on Labour’s target list, as well as one that the Conservatives will need to work hard to retain.
We spoke to these voters across a range of seats: both classic ‘red wall’ swing seats that changed from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019, as well as longer-standing Conservative seats with higher majorities that Labour will need to overturn if they are to secure a working majority at the next election. Groups were held in:
- Leigh – Conservative since 2019, 1,965 majority (becoming Leigh and Atherton following boundary changes).
- Bolsover – Conservative since 2019, 5,299 majority.
- Lincoln – Conservative since 2010, 3,514 majority.
- Blackpool North and Cleveleys - Conservative since 2010, 8,596 majority (becoming Blackpool North and Fleetwood following boundary changes).
- Bournemouth West – Conservative since 1950, 10,150 majority.
What we heard
The cost-of-living crisis remains a top priority
We began by asking participants what issues they take most into account when considering who to vote for. The cost of living came up time and again and, on this basis, we probed further on what impact it was having on them. People described how they had changed the quality of the food they buy, foregone enough heating, and cut back on activities such as days out with their children.
“It's more about the shopping and groceries for me, we made the change from like branded stuff to those cheaper options.” - Blackpool North and Cleveleys
“I do cringe when doing the weekly shop, but I can do it. But things like holidays, going out, days out with the kids, all the extras have had to stop.” - Leigh
“Mortgages are about to go up because we’re coming to the end of a fixed period, and it’s like 50% increase, and it’s like wages aren’t going up by 50%. So fun times.” - Bolsover
Many had experienced or witnessed more extreme levels of hardship and worried about the impact on people’s health and communities
Many participants raised more extreme examples of hardship, including going without or having to rely on family or charity for bare essentials such as food, heating, medication and baby formula:
“Your average neighbour who comes in for a prescription. And more often than not it’s gotten to the point where they say ‘I will not take the antibiotics, I can’t afford to pay for them’.” - Pharmacy Assistant, Bolsover
“I'd be coming home from work and just spending time in, you know, in the bedroom, and just having an electric blanket and not having eaten.” - Leigh
“She’s had to go cap in hand to family and say for my daughter’s birthday, don’t buy her any toys. Can you please just buy the essentials like nappies and milk because I’m really struggling.” - Bolsover
“I've got lots of friends that use food banks all the time and friends with children as well and they find it quite comforting to hear that they get excited when they go into a food bank and their children act like it's kind of like a shop sort of thing. And they, you know, and that's what they've got to do to be able to eat.” – Blackpool
“One of my friends has told the electric company, he wants his gas cutting off because he just can't afford to have it. And they’re like, well, how are you going to heat your house? How are you going to do this? And he’s like, you're just gonna have to leave it with me and I’ll sort it out, but just cut off.” - Bolsover
“Yeah, I've got a mate […] And he was excited the other day, because he got a tin of tuna from a food bank. And it was like, God mate the tin of tuna. And it's like, that's nothing I mean, like, I eat tuna every few days, but that was like, like, say Christmas come early for him.” – Blackpool
“I would say every other house that we currently go to recently has been in receipt of Food Bank vouchers […] But, you know, we are taking choices away from people, you know, they get given what they're given. They might not like what they've been given. They will eat what they've been given and we're talking about people with chronic health conditions, you know, diabetes, some, some patients with palliative diagnosis, cancers and things like that.” - Bolsover, district nurse
These experiences of hardship were seen to have intensely negative personal impacts, particularly on mental health. People also identified a range of wider knock-on impacts, such as rising crime and a sense of frustration or even anger in communities identified.
“You know, for someone that can’t afford the essentials… you can become depressed, can become suicidal.” - Blackpool North and Cleveleys
“My local community has had such an increase in crime rates such as robberies cars, houses, and you know, it’s on the increase. Because what are people supposed to do?” - Bolsover
“When I were in that position four years ago, I, you know, I could afford to buy the milk, buy the clothes, buy the nappies and the bare essentials for a small child. And she's now starting off with literally nothing, and she's getting minimal help. I think that's had a huge effect on our family.” - Bolsover
“You know, you can see it when you're out and about just attitudes for people, I, do think that people are a lot more angry these days. Probably due to - not necessarily anger, they're probably worried and anxious because of the position that they're in. You know, when you’re like that, you'd become irritable, you become snappy and that, but everyone just seems angry. It's a negative impact on the community. It’s not nice. It's not positive. It's not a nice environment.” - Lincoln
“I work with children, so we're seeing the knock-on effect with their mental health as well. They're taking on the, the issues and the emotions of their parents and carers at home which is having a knock-on effect to their well-being and their education as well.” - Bournemouth
“I work in social care, and this level of sustained hardship for people. It's not just financial implications, it's physical and mental implications, too, which has a further impact on services. So if you don't deal with the root cause you're just constantly dealing with the symptoms.” - Bolsover
People are shocked, saddened, and in some cases angered, about the level of hardship they are seeing
When asked what they felt about the levels of hardship occurring, people expressed compassion for people struggling and shock and anger that things have got so bad, especially given how wealthy the country is felt to be:
“So it's not like a… it's not a nice thing to think about. Especially when you've got friends that say that they struggle with eating and you know, and bills, they can't afford bills and have to put their food shopping on credit cards.” – Blackpool
“Makes me quite sad, because there's going to be a lot of vulnerable people out there that really haven't got anyone else to turn to. And elderly people won't go to foodbanks, most of them don't have mobiles and others sit there and end up really, really poorly. And I find that quite upsetting me when I start thinking about that.” - Lincoln
“It is heartbreaking because we're not a third world country. You know, people are working full-time jobs, sometimes two jobs. [..] And, you know, they're still struggling, and it shouldn't be like that, it's not fair.” - Bournemouth
"It's sad that so many people are going to food banks and our - my daughter's school she has like, boxes of food in the reception you can take home even if you're struggling and they help you or you can put it in there, which I think nice idea. But you don't have to be doing that.” - Leigh
“Yeah, there's so many people using food banks now. And like community grocery hubs and stuff where you sort of get a lot for a little bit of money. And yeah, it's just on the rise everywhere. [...] But yeah, it is shocking.” - Bournemouth
"My mum had nothing. She was a one-parent family. We lived in a council house. She was on benefits. And we had nothing. We didn’t go to a food bank or anything like that. You know, she could buy essentials, she could pay her bills. I just, I don’t know where all this has come from. I do feel they have to do something so that people do not have to live like that.” - Leigh
“Very sad, actually. And sort of angry in a way because we're not a poor country. And we should be doing more for people in need.” - Blackpool
People feel the issue should be a top priority but that politicians are not taking it seriously enough
People clearly felt it is primarily the responsibility of government to address issues of hardship and that it should be a priority issue. They also unanimously felt that politicians are not taking the issues seriously enough. They put this down to the fact that they themselves were not experiencing the effects of poverty and the cost of living. Many felt that politicians are too wealthy to understand the practical impacts of hardship and therefore lacked the empathy to deal with it as a political problem. Virtually all politicians were seen as out of touch with reality on this issue.
“Let’s face it, the politicians have got that much money. They’re not bothered.” - Lincoln
“I don’t think [politicians] are truly listening, truly understanding or have the right level of empathy towards the country at the moment because it’s not a well-kept secret that people can’t afford to pay their energy bills, can't afford to buy their own food, and they’re using food banks.” - Bolsover
“I don't think they're taking it seriously enough. I think it's, it's hitting nationwide. And I think there's so many people really, really struggling now. And I think it's becoming a bigger issue.” - Bournemouth
“It doesn't seem to be people that come from, like a regular background that are in Parliament. They don't really necessarily understand how we feel, we're struggling of costs and all that.” - Blackpool
"They don't do enough to make sure that people don't have to go to food banks. […] They're all talk. They're all arguing amongst themselves trying to get one up on each other. And, you know, they don't they don't seem to, they lose sight of what's needed.” – Bournemouth
Many felt that politicians who had life experiences that were similar to theirs would be more effective at tackling hardship. There was a strong feeling that politicians needed to understand better the impacts in order to be able to solve them when in government.
"Where I think that should actually be a change where there's actually politicians, like say our prime minister was from a, like, poverty background or something like that, and then had worked themselves up to themselves, and they have the understanding, I think someone like that might actually be a bit more believable.” - Blackpool
“I think maybe some of these MPs need to actually come and visit areas. But people really are struggling. Visit a food bank and see what people have to go through.” – Leigh
“I think it's like step into these working-class people’s shoes. They've all been privileged you know, they’ve probably had private education and everything, step into the working-class people’s shoes, see what’s really going on instead of like, just hearing it - come and spend time, you see what these people are struggling with.” – Leigh
“But they really do, they need to get out there not just for a quick half an hour shaking people's hands, who are working in a food bank and then flying off to London or whatever, I think they need to get in the real world, I think.” - Bournemouth West
Most saw little difference between the Conservatives and Labour on issues of hardship
Despite the Labour Party traditionally being seen as speaking more to the issues of poverty and deep hardship, participants felt that currently there is very little between the two main parties on this agenda. Neither party was regarded as demonstrating compassion. Some felt Labour has lost touch with its purpose and core values on this agenda.
“Think Labour's probably slightly more in tune. But I think they’re losing touch with reality a little bit. Just getting too involved in maybe, like you say [gesticulates to another participant], the back and forth of politics or necessarily that isn't important. And they’re losing touch of actually the poverty and the detriment that they’re putting people in, trying to get this one upmanship.” - Bournemouth West
“I don't think there's much difference between them, because I don't think they're addressing the problem. I think they just want to get into a position of power. They don't want to help the underdog.” - Leigh
“It's going to take a long time and to regain trust. And that's the problem, I think. I think that's what Labour lost back in… when they did lose originally. And it's something that Conservatives have lost quite quickly. And I don't know it's the only way you can regain trust is to show your loyalty and that and I just feel like they don't do that. They don't show any sort of compassion for this country.” - Bournemouth
“I used to be a staunch Labour person, but […] it's like what [participant] said it’s a bit like, how can anyone look as bad as the conservatives, because you’d be hard pressed to look as bad as that. But I don't even know if Labour is the answer. They don't seem to be doing enough. So, they seem to be talking a lot, but not saying what they'd actually do. If that makes sense.” - Lincoln
“I think historically, the Labour Party was for the workers whereas the Conservatives were more middle class, upper class. I think they now are coming more and more together. I don't think there's much difference between their approach.” - Leigh
People want more than words, they want a plan on rising hardship
There appears to be a total breakdown in communication between politicians and this part of the electorate. Politicians are not seen to be talking about the issues of hardship and people struggling to afford even the basics, and broad-brush and general messaging is not persuading them. In addition, people want to see tangible and actionable plans for how politicians are going to reach their stated goals, and not just what those goals are:
“I think I'd like to hear them say, what they're actually going to do, not what they plan to do, what they will do with intention.” - Bolsover
“I'd probably say they really need to listen to the people. And, you know, work with the people and see what needs doing and like Carl said, it needs to be something measurable where we can see changes happening.” - Bournemouth West
“So for me, I'm like, okay, if you know the problem probably you’re also thinking about the solution to the problem. And that gives hope. So it boils down to ‘so how do you intend to go about it?’” - Blackpool
“I think we're sort of quite far down the line here, where people have been really reliant on food banks struggling to heat and eat, and everything else. So I think, for us to get here, it's, it's gonna take a lot of work, isn't it really to build that trust? And really, the proof is in the pudding isn't really they need to be showing people that not only are they saying these words, and they do understand where the issues is, but it's got to be laid on the table, isn't it, how they're willing to do that and what they're willing to do.” - Bournemouth West
The visceral power of a focus on hardship will be maximised if it is incorporated into a wider plan for strengthening people’s economic security
The message of helping people who are experiencing deep hardship was most popular when situated as part of a wider focus on economic insecurity. There was a sense otherwise from some that a government focusing only on people experiencing extreme hardship would mean that individuals (like themselves) who were also struggling could be passed over for assistance:
“When they say lowest incomes, so is that because people are on the national minimum wage. What about the rest of us?” - Lincoln
“I know the lowest income people definitely need support. But I think with the cost of living prices, not just those, it’s the people might be slightly more than minimum wage, but are also struggling.” - Bolsover
“Like, I think there needs to be better offers for people in paid employment, not just people in really like low-paid jobs or not in work.” – Bolsover
Situating growth as the solution to hardship was popular, but only when combined with tangible and clear actions for how this would be achieved
We asked the participants for their views on a political message that described a commitment to grow the economy in order to reduce poverty and hardship, as growth features predominantly in the narratives of both major parties right now.
The groups were generally positive about this commitment; however, it was only popular when combined with an actionable plan for how it would be achieved, including distinct and tangible actions:
“What is the action plan to make that happen? Like, if you’re not going to give any kind of ‘how’, how are you going to do it then? It kind of means nothing.” - Lincoln
“How exactly do you plan on doing it. You know, I don’t need a full on detailed bullet pointed itinerary with A to Z, but just, you know, maybe an A or a B would be nice.” - Bolsover
“So they’re not just saying things. It’s actually got a plan. They’ve sat down, they’ve worked out a plan in play, that would make it more believable.” - Lincoln
"Lovely sentiment. Sounds great on paper. But give me some specifics.” - Bolsover
Implications for the main parties
The issues of hardship and going without the essentials are of high - and often personal - concern for a key group of swing voters: economically insecure undecided voters in swing seats.
There is a visceral power to talking about the issues of deep hardship and harnessing this agenda presents an opportunity for the parties to demonstrate they are listening to and in touch with the real issues people are concerned about – currently neither party is seen to own the issue. This presents a big opportunity for one of the parties.
Experiences of, and concern about, deep hardship bleed into more widely felt experiences of financial insecurity. To be most effective, a focus on this agenda should be included as part of a wider plan for strengthening people’s economic security.
Situating growth as the solution to hardship works well as a starting point, however, people will only fully buy into this when specific, tangible and relatable actions for how this would be achieved are included.
Below 40% of median income after housing costs.
A statistical technique called multi-level regression and post-stratification.
The recruitment questionnaire asked people to select one of the following, with those selecting 3, 4, or 5 considered ‘economically precarious’: 1. I am very comfortable financially; 2. I am relatively comfortable financially; 3. I do not have money for luxuries, but can normally comfortably cover the essentials; 4. I can only just afford my costs and often struggle to make ends meet; 5. I cannot afford my costs and often have to go without essentials like food and heating.