Polling and focus groups have diverged wildly. Rishi is betting everything that the polls are right

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

Electorally, how should we judge last week’s Cabinet reshuffle? It depends whether you put more trust in polls or focus groups. The polls show the public are desperate for the boring reassurance someone like Lord Cameron brings, while focus groups show people want the revolutionary change articulated by Suella Braverman.

I cannot recall a time of greater divergence between what polls and groups report. It therefore matters whether politicians are listening chiefly to one or the other. As a numbers man known to devour data, it looks like Rishi Sunak trusts the polls and chose to make a bet the country will welcome Lord Cameron’s return.

It is easy to see why the former Prime Minister looks like the answer to Tory problems. Over the last few months, I have been running a series of polls probing the most fundamental political questions: on values, policies, party reputations, and more.

These polls have painted a seemingly clear picture. People are despondent at the quality of modern politicians; they believe them to be untrustworthy and incompetent. They want stability, predictability, seriousness. They want change but to the status quo ante: they want life before wars in the Middle East and Ukraine; they want life before Brexit.

In this context, Lord Cameron makes complete sense.

But the focus groups report something totally, wildly different. Talk to the great mass of lower middle-class and working-class voters who made up the core of the Tories’ 2019 electoral coalition and they basically plead to be given matches to burn the whole place down.

They want a near-total replacement of the political class – with new parties - and for the Government to take brutal action to deal with supposedly intractable problems. They are tired of politicians prevaricating and blaming external events and other people for their own failures. They rage at a system they consider unfair and unresponsive.

Most obviously, they want the Government to stop the arrival of small boats and to rapidly process asylum claimants, without putting them in what they see as luxury accommodation as they do. They also want significantly to reduce legal immigration at a time when the economy is weak.

These two issues formed the heart of Suella Braverman’s letter to the PM this week, following her sacking.

But the focus groups reveal desire for broader revolutionary change; asylum and immigration is merely a feature. This mass of voters wants drastic action to reduce the numbers of people on welfare, with a contributory system attached. They want those who have “paid in” via decades of National Insurance Contributions to be compensated more generously in hard times than those who have barely worked.

It goes on. They want longer sentences for serious criminals and more prisons if necessary. They want anti-social behaviour cracked down on in their local towns. And they want fiscal and regulatory change to boost their local high streets.

In the last couple of weeks, many have asserted they want the police and Government to collectively deal fairly, even-handedly, but harshly with extremism - and with the disorder that so often comes with that.

Nobody that trusts focus group research would have hired Lord Cameron and fired Suella Braverman. While the Government has dabbled with this agenda, Braverman defined herself by it. By her own admission, some of her message delivery missed the mark; however, her agenda resonates with these voters.

All this begs the question: which should the PM have listened to, the polls or the groups?

For the simple reason polls and groups often conflict, campaigns must listen to both. Typically, polls provide top line data, while the focus groups explain it.

In my experience though, focus groups are always more useful in anticipating what is coming down the line. Because they give people the freedom to say what they want in the way they want to, they provide early warning sirens on emerging issues. What people say in the groups today, the polls pick up in a couple of months.

Come the start of the election campaign, I would be staggered if voters are saying “thank heavens for that nice Lord Cameron”.

James Frayne is founding partner of research agency Public First  

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