Home / Blog / Labour to attack PM on economy after focus groups ‘irritated’ by his optimism

Labour to attack PM on economy after focus groups ‘irritated’ by his optimism

Aug 25, 2023Aug 25, 2023

Exclusive: party says potential Tory-to-Labour switchers do not feel better off and find Sunak’s attitude ‘grating’

Labour plans to go on the attack over Rishi Sunak’s stewardship of the economy this autumn, as the party’s internal polling suggests Tory-to-Labour switchers are irritated by his optimism on inflation when they do not feel that their own finances are improving.

The party’s focus groups of what they call “hero voters” – who backed the Tories in 2019 and are now considering Labour – suggest this group are unconvinced that the economy is improving despite inflation coming down slowly.

Ahead of autumn’s party conference season, Labour is planning a dual attack on Sunak for appearing out of touch with voters’ concerns, and his vulnerability to calls from backbench Tories for unfunded tax cuts that could lead to “Truss Mark II”.

A memo prepared by Keir Starmer’s strategy director, Deborah Mattinson, seen by the Guardian, shows from the party’s polling and focus groups that swing voters do not feel better off and therefore the government’s suggestion of an improving economy is “grating”.

A senior Labour source said: “What we have seen this summer is Rishi Sunak going on television telling people: ‘Isn’t everything going great?’, while at the same time mortgages are going up, foods bills are rising and energy prices are rising. He’s widely out of touch and working people are worse off.

“At the same time, he is too weak to call out the radical voices in his party who want him to do a ‘Liz Truss Mark II’ with unfunded tax cuts that will crash the economy. The truth is, the biggest risk to the economy is another five years of Conservative chaos. This is what you will hear us talking about this autumn.”

The Labour memo, drawing on the party’s national polling and focus groups in Newcastle-under-Lyme conducted in mid-August, said Sunak’s recent comments on inflation “reinforce hero voters’ pre-existing impression of him as out of touch” and that “64% disagree with his assertion that ‘We’ll all feel better off next year,’ and his ‘optimistic’ grates when voters are still feeling the pain of rising prices”.

“Hero voters give Sunak no credit for inflation falling, with focus groups mirroring YouGov’s polling showing that only 8% of the public say he has contributed to the fall in inflation. They say he’s had ‘nothing to do with it’ and are affronted by the idea of him ‘taking credit’ he doesn’t deserve,” it said.

The report for Labour conducted in August suggested that 37% of the “hero voters” said Sunak had had “no impact” on inflation and most were unable to recall any positive things he had achieved. It found that most of the group remain pessimistic about the future, with mortgage rates driving particularly acute anxiety, while 63% of them and 55% of the general public believed that the government would have a negative impact on their financial situation in the next 12 months.

The memo said: “Uncertainty about what inflation falling actually means is likely to worsen the disconnect between Sunak’s ‘optimistic’ narrative and voters’ experience as prices continue to rise.

“In this context, Sunak’s response to inflation falling reinforces hero voters’ impression of him as out of touch. His perceived ‘optimism’ grates on voters and is taken as further evidence that his wealth means he ‘doesn’t get it’, with voters spontaneously referencing his swimming pool and wife’s non-dom status.”

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One woman in a focus group in Newcastle-under-Lyme was reported to say of Sunak: “I don’t think he’s made a difference. The biggest influence, I think, is the reduction in gas and electric prices, and I’m fairly sure he’s had nothing to do with that. So no, I don’t think he deserves any credit for it. Cheeky of him. I wouldn’t mind a little word with him.”

It comes as a new poll by Ipsos suggests a majority of the public expects Starmer to become prime minister. About 56% of people surveyed told the pollster they thought it was “likely” the Labour leader would succeed Sunak, with only 28% saying they thought it was unlikely.

The poll of 1,038 British adults, conducted between 11 and 13 August, painted an almost positive picture for Labour – and a difficult one for the Conservatives.

Starmer also continued to lead Sunak on favourability by 30 points to 27, and outpolled his opponent on all but three of 12 key traits that Ipsos asked about.

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