Rishi Sunak should pour money and staff into the “crippled” NHS, and reward striking nurses with better pay, Conservative 2019 voters from a “red wall” constituency have said.
Stoke-on-Trent residents in a focus group organised by More in Common for the Guardian described the health service as “struggling”, being in an “absolute mess” and “on its backside”, with all members able to describe just how difficult it is to get an appointment. On top of this, the locals expressed a huge amount of sympathy for striking health workers, who are “worked to the bone”.
Noting how difficult it has become, Jannette, 59, a hairdresser, said: “I have a few friends who work as nurses and doctors, and they’re just worked to the bone. That’s why they’re all leaving. They don’t get breaks, they’re doing extra shifts they’re not appreciated. More money should be put in that system.”
But instead of blaming the Tories for failing to invest over the past 12 years, the group members criticised the prime minister for leaving the public alone to deal with spiralling inflation, strikes and failing public services.
“He’s done a disappearing act,” Jannette added, with other members expressing agreement. “Before, he was on the news every night saying ‘we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that’. All of a sudden he’s disappeared and it’s as if we’re just being left with this doom and gloom just to get on with paying our high bills and our high food bills, and there seems no end to it.”
Andy, 37, echoed Keir Starmer’s new year phrase of “sticking plaster politics”, as he felt Sunak makes laws to prevent immediate actions that do little to tackle the root of the issue. “He just doesn’t care,” Andy said. “He just passes the buck. With this strikes issue, it’s like he says, ‘I’ve got people striking. I’m going to pass a law stops anyone from striking. Right, I’ll disappear now.’ He’s not very strong at all.”
The voters were less compassionate with train drivers’ industrial action, suggesting their wave of strikes had softened the impact of nurses making history at the end of last year, braving the picket line.
Joe, 42, an employee relations partner, feared nurses would get the least money from the government or sympathy from the public because they were slow to join the wave of industrial action. “I’m pretty sick of the strikes. I’m not saying I wouldn’t, people shouldn’t and they’ve got their rights to do what they’re doing. But when I heard the nurses were striking, I thought well good for you if you can get better wages. But it’s coming after a long line of the country taking a battering, strike after strike, 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 if their current exhaustion is enough to make them vote Labour at the next election. Jannette, the oldest in the group, insisted she will not be voting for Starmer’s Labour party, as any other leader or party would have found themselves in the same difficult position as Sunak. “The situation of the world hasn’t helped, especially with Covid. These are things out of their control.”
Other group members acknowledged the desperate need for a change in leadership, as appearing “passionate” is not enough to tackle current issues.
“I’ll be going somewhere different,” at the next election, Andy said. “I can’t abide by a political party that goes from one leader to the next without allowing the public a say on who’s leading our country. We’re not acting democratically. Also I’m very much aware of Sunak’s ability to manipulate the bankers and to make people [who want immediate solutions] happy with the right choice of words. But right now, the Conservative’s have pushed me to think, actually why do I have to vote red or blue? If Labour’s not the answer maybe it’s time to give someone else a go. How much worse can it get when you’re at the bottom of the pit?”
Starmer had not made enough of an impact on these voters to persuade them, but he has made huge inroads in turning the party away from being so closely associated with his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. Asked what they thought of the former director of public prosecutions, the group said they were “indifferent” and simply not sure about him.
The move from hatred of the Labour party towards indifference will come as a huge relief to party officials who are striving to ensure the party “takes back control” of rightwing slogans and the centre-right of politics, in an effort to win the next election.
This constituency turned blue for the first time in its history, since 1950, at the 2019 election, as voters sought hope with Boris Johnson’s focus on resurrecting working-class dreams. It is these same dreams voters themselves have dropped because of crises that will define the next election. Levelling up, a phrase that arguably underpinned the last election, is something these target voters have no connection with.
Asked what the phrase meant, the group fell silent before Andy uttered: “My guess it’s the government’s way of saying we’re going to try and bring the northern part of the country in line with the southern part.” Stephanie added: “It’s putting everyone on the same [wage] package … isn’t it?”
Their uncertainty will come as a huge blow to the Conservatives as these red wall voters are exactly the people they are trying to woo with levelling up funding. But worst of all, half the group reluctantly admitted they would dissuade an ambitious young person from settling down in Stoke, claiming the city has got worse since Johnson’s election win.
Luke Tryl, the UK director of More in Common, said: “Struggling with high energy and food bills, convinced the NHS was on its knees and unable to point to any signs of ‘levelling up’, the most worrying thing for the government was how little this group in Stoke felt they had to show for voting Tory. And while they agreed that the prime minister seemed to be doing better than his predecessors, they still didn’t think they were seeing enough of him to know if he was up to the task of sorting out the country’s many challenges.”