One of the things you find when you spend a lot of time conducting focus groups with so-called “normal” people is that they are rarely mean, rarely spiteful, and generally want common sense solutions to most political problems. It’s boring but it’s true.
Putting perhaps Brexit and immigration aside, most people are actually very, very moderate on most issues. If there is a sensible center ground, they will instinctively move towards it. the The results of a recent survey we conducted for the More In Common campaign group on gender identity and trans rights is a great example..
This sensible central point is exactly where we found ourselves earlier this week (Tuesday) when we discussed the rail strikes with voters in Tiverton, where a major by-election is taking place.
What we discovered in this focus group was actually quite a nuanced position on the issue of public sector wage strikes, one that could see support in either direction. Both political parties would do well to think how this plays out, especially if this summer of turmoil turns into a winter of discontent.
It will not surprise anyone that the instinctive reaction of our participants was to be angry about the possibility of more strikes and the implications for their lives. Both were upset at the short-term disruption the “trenmageddon” would cause to their daily lives, but also at how, if successful, a wage increase for railway staff would see the cost passed on to them as fare payments. passengers
(This is further proof, if we need it, that *all* politics must now be viewed through the prism of the cost-of-living crisis.)
One participant put it this way: “Yes. [rail workers’] wages have gone up more than everyone else’s, it’s another thing that will add to the cost of living because that cost will be passed on to the people who use the trains. They can’t do it any other way because everything else is being squeezed so that that cost is passed on to everyone else, the cost of living goes up.”
Others agreed, with only one of the eight actively supporting the RMT’s action.
But dig a little deeper and there was more than just an angry rejection: we also found sympathy. This group of instinctive conservatives actually sympathized with the demands of the strikers. They might empathize with a group of workers’ decision to do *something* about the failure of wages to keep up with spiraling bills.
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“I understand why they attack,” said one of our focus groups. “The fact that it impacts the population to the extent that it does, does not win them over and does them no favors. But I think they have the ability to do something most of us can’t do to get a raise. Many of us have worked for three or four years and no one has had a raise, but thanks to the unions, they have the ability to strike.”
This, then, is key. If the Conservative government thinks that attacking the RMT is a “wedge issue” that will allow them to win back support by taking on a group of “hated” trade unionists, then they may be wrong.
We discovered that there was very little appetite for beating up the strikers in Tiverton, and more than a little fascination to see how they fared.
The cost of living crisis is changing everything in politics, including how Conservative voters in rural Devon think about picketing public sector workers. We live in truly unlikely times.
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