Lucy Morrell: What’s behind the pessimism over our political leaders?
Theresa May is seen as a ‘Thatcher wannabe’ while voters question Jeremy Corbyn's ability to deliver.
The mood of the nation is bleak. Ongoing Brexit uncertainty, rising levels of concern about housing and the NHS, and a total lack of confidence in Theresa May mean that voters are feeling anxious and pessimistic about the year ahead.
When BritainThinks asked swing voters in Watford their expectations for 2018 in focus groups earlier this year, they painted an almost universally gloomy picture of uncertainty, anxiety and division – in fact, it feels like the only thing we have to be proud of as a nation is the Royal Family.
Housing, homelessness, and the NHS are top concerns, while Brexit continues to be a worry. In a nationally-representative survey of 2,000 people, just 30% say they feel it is likely that negotiations with the EU will go well this year. However, a second referendum isn’t all that welcome, for fears that it would slow down the process and extend the period of uncertainty the nation is facing even more.
Younger voters’ diagnosis for the year ahead is particularly bleak. They are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet, and expect this to get harder over 2018. They feel that they cannot physically work any harder, with some focus group participants working several jobs as it is, and as a result are feeling a strong sense of injustice. Comparing themselves to older generations, they feel like they are being excluded from just reward. This extends to a heightened sense of ‘benefit scroungers’ who appear to be getting a better deal, especially when it comes to housing.
As for our political leaders, expectations are just as pessimistic. Theresa May’s reputation was devastated during 2017. In focus groups, the most common words used by swing voters to describe her were weak, unstable, and stubborn – a ‘Thatcher wannabe’ who lacks strength or a vision of her own. Initial excitement at having a female PM has quickly worn away. What’s left is little faith that she will do something about the issues of most concern (housing and the NHS), nor that she has the strength represent the nation’s interests at the Brexit negotiation table.
By contrast, views of Jeremy Corbyn are mixed. He’s described as strong, confident and grounded by some – and not just young people – while others see him as naïve and untrustworthy.
Crucially, much of his success is relative to May’s very poor position. Next to her weakness and instability, he appears to be a stronger leader who has the support of his party behind him. And where she is thought to be a ‘Thatcher wannabe’, Corbyn is an individual who stands up for what he believes in. In addition, he’s benefiting from the backdrop of Labour heartland issues, such as housing and the NHS, rising up the agenda.
When asking swing voters which of the two leaders would be better at improving public services and the NHS, the answer is clear: Corbyn, of course.
Nevertheless, anxieties about his ability to deliver as a prime minister remain. He’s inexperienced, and there are fears of his overpromising. Abolishing tuition fees is Labour’s most memorable policy from the 2017 election manifesto. Even younger voters question Corbyn’s ability to deliver this, while for older voters it was nothing more than a poorly-hidden bribe to win the younger vote.
As a result, for many swing voters when it comes to May and Corbyn it is a case of ‘none of the above’.
Lucy Morrell is research lead at BritainThinks