Rishi Sunak should put money and staff into the “crippled” NHS and reward striking nurses with better pay, 2019 Conservative voters from a “red wall” constituency said.
Stoke-on-Trent residents in a focus group organized by More in Common for the Guardian described the health service as “struggling”, in an “absolute mess” and “on its ass”, with all members able to describe how difficult it is to to make an appointment. In addition, the local population showed enormous compassion for the striking health workers, who “worked to the bone”.
Jannette, 59, a hairdresser, notes how difficult it has become, saying: “I have some friends who work as nurses and doctors, and they are just worked to the bone. That’s why they all leave. They don’t get breaks, they work extra shifts, they aren’t appreciated. More money should be put into that system.”
But instead of blaming the Tories for not investing in the past 12 years, the group members criticized the prime minister for leaving the public alone to deal with rising inflation, strikes and failing public services.
“He performed a disappearing act,” Jannette added, as other members agreed. “He used to be on the news every night saying ‘we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that’. Suddenly he’s gone and it’s like we’re left with this doom and gloom just to continue paying of our high bills and our high food bills, and there seems to be no end to it.
Andy, 37, echoed Keir Starmer’s New Year’s phrase about “stick-on politics” as he felt Sunak legislates to prevent immediate actions that do little to address the root cause of the problem. “He just doesn’t care,” Andy said. “He’s just shifting the responsibility. With this strike problem, it’s like he’s saying, ‘I’ve got people on strike. I’m going to pass a law that prevents anyone from going on strike. All right, I’ll disappear now.’ He’s not strong at all.”
Voters were less sympathetic to the machinists’ union actions, suggesting their spate of strikes had softened the impact of nurses who made history late last year and braved the picket line.
Joe, 42, an employee relations partner, feared nurses would get the least government money or public sympathy because they were slow to join the wave of industrial action. “I am tired of the strikes. I’m not saying I wouldn’t, people shouldn’t and they have a right to do what they do. But when I heard that the nurses were on strike, I thought, good for you if you can get better pay. But it comes after a long line of the country getting blow after blow, and they will have less sympathy.
While the Prime Minister’s lack of action has been noted in this constituency, they feel it is too early to decide whether their current exhaustion is enough to lead them to vote Labor in the next election. Jannette, the eldest in the group, insisted she would not vote for Starmer’s Labor party, as any other leader or party would have been in the same predicament as Sunak. “The situation in the world has not helped, especially with Covid. These are things they cannot control.”
Other group members recognized the desperate need for a change in leadership, as appearing “passionate” is not enough to address current issues.
“I’m going somewhere else,” Andy said at the next election. “I cannot abide by a political party moving from one leader to another without giving the public a say in who is leading our country. We do not act democratically. Also, I am very aware of Sunak’s ability to manipulate the bankers and make people (who want immediate solutions) happy with the right choice of words. But right now the Conservatives have got me thinking: why should I vote red or blue at all? If Labor isn’t the answer, maybe it’s time to give someone else a chance. How much worse can it get when you’re at the bottom of the pit?”
Starmer hadn’t impressed these voters enough to win them over, but he’s made huge strides in ensuring that the party is no longer so closely tied to his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. When asked what they thought of the former Director of Public Prosecutions, the group said they were “indifferent” and just not sure about him.
The transition from hatred of the Labor Party to indifference will be a huge relief to party officials who aim to see the party take back control of right-wing slogans and the centre-right in politics in a bid to win the next election. .
This constituency turned blue for the first time in its history since 1950 in the 2019 election, as voters sought hope with Boris Johnson’s focus on reviving the dreams of the working class. They are the same dreams that voters themselves have dropped because of crises that will shape the next election. Levelling, a phrase that arguably underpinned the last election, is something these target voters have no connection with.
When asked what the phrase meant, the group fell silent before Andy said, “I guess it’s the government’s way of saying we’re going to try to bring the northern part of the country in line with the southern part.” Stephanie added: “It puts everyone on the same (pay) package…isn’t it?”
Their uncertainty will be a huge blow to the Conservatives, as these Red Wall voters are the very people they are trying to win by raising funding. But worst of all, half the group grudgingly admitted they would dissuade an aspiring youngster from settling in Stoke, claiming the town has gotten worse since Johnson’s election victory.
Luke Tryl, the UK director of More in Common, said: “Struggling with high energy and food bills, convinced that the NHS was on its knees and unable to point to any signs of ‘leveling off’ was most disturbing to the government how little this group in Stoke felt they had to show to vote for Tory And although they agreed that the Prime Minister seemed to be doing better than his predecessors they still didn’t think they saw enough of him to know if he was up to the task of solving the country’s many challenges.”