National political polls by Ipsos MORI, YouGov and so on are based on respondents carefully chosen to represent the proportions of the UK population; this gives them high validity but does not facilitate any sort of ‘vox pop’. A straight ‘vox pop’ of random interviews, on the other hand, rarely indicates a collective strength of feeling.
On Saturday 20 August, four people from the group Hope for Europe aimed to do a little of both. They set up a stall on Buxton’s main shopping street to give anyone who wished a chance to choose one answer from three options, to seven simple questions. They could respond by sticking a star on a whiteboard and could stop to chat if they had the time and inclination.
Buxton is England’s highest market town, in the High Peak of Derbyshire, whose voters took it from red to blue in 2019; the current MP Robert Largan, won with a 590 majority. Its population is around 22,000, and somewhat older than the national average.
No holds barred
Plenty of people did stop and talk: over 100 in the space of two hours. Not all were living in the town, some were visiting from, for example, Manchester for the weekend’s Eat in the Park Festival.
The group spoke to people of all ages, from students to the very elderly, and did not encounter any antagonism. This was clearly not a poll with the validity of a paid-for and commissioned one. But it did offer a chance for people to be heard on their own terms and say what they wanted without the constraint of a set formula. Many didn’t hold back!
Probably about half of the people who passed by the stall stopped to participate.
What were the questions that sparked so much willingness to share feelings, and how were they answered?
|Are you or your family having difficulties accessing the NHS?||Yes 55%||No 35%||Not applicable 10%|
|If people are, why might that be?||Covid 27%||Brexit 22%||Lack of funding 51%|
|Is the government doing enough to combat the ‘cost of living crisis’?||Yes 2%||No 90%||Don’t know 8%|
|Is the government focussed on levelling up?||Yes 6%||Now 83%||Don’t know 11%|
|Who will be the better PM?||Rishi Sunak 18%||Liz Truss 10%||Neither/ Someone else 72%|
|Who should decide on the next PM?||Conservative MPs 5%||Conservative party members 9%||Us, with a General Election 87%|
|Has Brexit affected you or your family?||Yes 73%||No 25%||Don’t know 2%|
The response to the question about the NHS was interesting: if anything, we had expected an even larger majority to be having problems, given national press coverage of the topic. Of course, we have no way of knowing why: it could be that the High Peak is more blessed than average with its NHS or with its general healthiness, or many other reasons.
Similarly, we were a little surprised by the quite low proportion of people who primarily blamed Covid for the NHS woes, given its legacy; perhaps they feel that funding should keep up to address problems more quickly, or even believe that Covid has ‘been done’. Again, we can only guess.
The cost of living crisis
Perceptions of the ‘cost of living crisis’ were far more dramatic. Even before they had seen the recent revised energy cost estimates, it was clear that people were very, very worried. Moreover, they felt abandoned. The great majority did not see any help forthcoming from the government, and this was before Liz Truss doubled down in the recent hustings on her preference for untargeted tax reductions, or the current Chancellor told us we must reduce our electricity usage.
Comments included: “This government is a heap of manure” and “The cost of living increase means we’ll just have to cut out more and more things.” It seemed that people’s pain was seen as unheard or dismissed by the government. Only one person was satisfied with the government’s response to their fears.
Similarly, virtually no-one thought the ‘Levelling Up’ plan was working or investment was being made into it. They were so worried about inflation in life’s necessities that respondents seemed less focused on this question, but it might be concerning for a government that won its Red Wall seats partly on a levelling up promise.
Enormous challenges ahead
The next prime minister is set to inherit enormous challenges. Very few of the Buxton respondents appear to think that the contenders are up to it. Most notably, there was great antagonism from many people to both Truss and Sunak. One interviewer said: “Some people said that they could do a better job of being PM than Truss or Sunak and one said their pet rabbit could do a better job.”
There was also anger about the passing of the baton based on the votes of a small, non-representative group. Nearly 90% of those responding felt this was wrong, and that they were unheard at a time of national emergency. One person phrased it, “The diabolical state of this nation” while another said, “We need a general election as we should be able to choose the next PM, not a few Tory members.”
As an interesting side note, although we did not ask about Boris Johnson as a contender, we were given responses about him that spanned the spectrum from loathing to love. Eight people wanted him to return as PM.
The B word
We had rather expected that the topic of Brexit, while it still stirs strong feelings in some, would not be a key issue given the current problems. We were surprised to find that was not the case, and in fact nearly three quarters of passers-by felt they had been affected in some way.
There were some concerns for future generations. One woman talked about how her daughter had been able to study and travel in Europe, but her granddaughter, who was now studying languages, would find it so much more difficult because of the end of the Erasmus opportunities.
There were also comments about travel difficulties, cost of importing and how some people no longer wanted to trade with the UK as there was too much red tape. One man saw a benefit arising because he could more easily sell and buy in sterling, but could not expand on this.
Anger and despair
In conclusion, this survey picked up on some very strong and (in this context) widespread popular concerns. The single most critical feeling was one of anger.
The people who stopped at the stall – and bear in mind this was around half of those who saw it – wanted to share this. But some were too angry to even participate. They said, “I’m too furious with the government to even put a star on the board” and “I’m so stressed that stars are not enough to share my feelings.”
And perhaps most sadly: “I’m just in despair.”