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Surveying the wreckage

A Living Marxism survey of the crucial Tory marginal seat of Bolton West offers some telling insights into the state of public opinion in Britain on the eve of a general election.

  • The largest section of voters cannot name one British politician who inspires them
  • A majority of voters believe that elections change nothing important
  • Almost 60% think that the recession will last at least until the end of next year, and probably longer
  • Only around a third believe that their children will ever be better off than them
  • On every question, the most cynical and pessimistic responses are concentrated among younger voters

Kirsten Cale analyses the findings

State of the parties

How will you vote in the 1992 election?
  • Labour 36%
  • Conservative 33%
  • Don't know 16%
  • Liberal Democrat 13%
  • Green 2%
  • Other --
Who is the most inspiring politician?
  • None inspiring 29%
  • John Major 17%
  • Neil Kinnock 16%
  • Paddy Ashdown 14%
  • Margaret Thatcher 9%
  • Tony Benn 4%
  • John Smith 2%
  • Jonathon Porritt 2%
  • Claire Short 1%
  • Michael Heseltine 1%
  • Norman Tebbit 1%
  • Other 4%
Who is the least inspiring politician?
  • Neil Kinnock 22%
  • Margaret Thatcher 19%
  • John Major 14%
  • Tony Benn 12%
  • Norman Lamont 9%
  • Bernie Grant 8%
  • All equally uninspiring 7%
  • Claire Short 2%
  • Paddy Ashdown 2%
  • Other 4%
Have you switched parties from the 1987 election?

31% of those who voted last time said they had switched either to another major party, or to 'don't know'
  • Away from Conservative 16%
  • Away from Labour 7%
  • Away from Liberal Democrats 8%
  • If you are switching from the Tories, why?
  • Repelled by Tory government 72%
  • Enthused by others 8%
  • Other 19%
If you are staying loyal to the Tories, why?
  • Dislike Labour/others 37%
  • Economic policies 20%
  • General principles 10%
  • No alternative 10%
  • Best to govern 8%
  • Family tradition 5%
  • Other 10%
If you are staying loyal to Labour, why?
  • Dislike Tories 35%
  • Party of working class 17%
  • Family tradition 16%
  • Social policies 11%
  • Economic policies 8%
  • General principles 6%
  • Party of socialism 4%
  • Other 4%
If you are staying loyal to the Liberals, why?
  • Dislike others 42%
  • General principles 24%
  • Other 33%
Do elections change anything important?
  • No 55%
  • Yes 37%
  • Don't know 8%
What are the three most important problems today?

(% of respondents naming each problem as one of their top three)
  • Unemployment 66%
  • Health service 52%
  • Crime 47%
  • Housing 34%
  • Environment 23%
  • Inflation 21%
  • Aids 18%
  • Immigration 8%
  • Education 8%
  • Racism 6%
  • Defence 5%
  • Other 11%
When will the recession end?
  • Summer 4%
  • End of the year 21%
  • End of 1993 26%
  • Longer 29%
  • Never 3%
  • Don't know 17%
Are you better/worse off than your parents?
  • Better off 77%
  • Worse off 13%
  • Same 8%
  • Don't know 2%

State of the nation

Will your children be better/worse off than you?
  • Better off 37%
  • Worse off 32%
  • Same 12%
  • Don't know 19%
Which British institutions will cease to exist in 50 years?
  • House of Lords 23%
  • Welfare state 22%
  • None will cease 22%
  • Royal family 16%
  • Parliament 3%
  • Labour Party 2%
  • Conservative Party 1%
  • Don't know 11%
Are you proud to be British?
  • Very proud 55%
  • Moderately proud 31%
  • Indifferent 8%
  • Not very proud 4%
  • Not proud at all 3%
  • Not British --
Survey conducted by Manchester and Liverpool Living Marxism readers. Statistics compiled by Kirsten Cale and Simon Banks. Additional research by Ravi Behn and Colm Murphy.

(The survey was carried out in Bolton West between 18 and 29 February 1992. The 500 respondents were drawn proportionately from age groups corresponding to OPCS population projections for Bolton in 1991.)

Northern marginal: Bolton West

Bolton West has been a weather-vane seat for most of the past 30 years: it had a Labour MP during the Wilson government, a Tory MP during the Heath government, a Labour MP during the Wilson/Callaghan government and a Tory MP after the Thatcherite landslide of 1983. At the 1987 election, Conservative Thomas Sackville had a majority of 4593.

Cynicism rules

The Living Marxism poll shows that, at the end of February, Labour (36 per cent) was holding a three per cent lead over the Tories (33 per cent) in Bolton West. But the large number of 'Don't knows' (16 per cent), many of whom voted Tory last time, make the final outcome far from certain. Although Labour has taken the lead, at 36 per cent its support in our poll is exactly the same as the share of the vote which the defeated Labour candidate received in 1987--a fact which points to a lack of dynamism behind any of the parties.

The most significant feature of the responses is the high level of cynicism about parties and politicians. Few will cast a positive vote for anybody. The largest section of those remaining loyal to each party say they will be casting a negative vote against the others, rather than a positive vote for the party of their choice.

A bad bunch

While few would go as far as Howard Miles - an unemployed Bolton man who recently fire-bombed a local Conservative Club because the Tories had 'ruined his life'-- many are casting their votes as a protest against either the government or the opposition. The politics of the 'best of a very bad bunch' will hold sway on polling day.

Almost a third of respondents could not name a single living British politician who inspired them. 'They all piss in the same pot', said an 18-year old youth from Blackrod. 'They're all so boring', complained a housewife from Horwich. People were more forthcoming about their political hate figures: Neil Kinnock scored an easy victory as the least inspiring politician in Britain, and was roundly condemned as 'spineless', 'incompetent' and 'clueless' by Tory and Labour supporters alike. Margaret Thatcher ('that cow') and John Major ('a jerk') took second and third prize for most unpopular politician.

A battering

Unemployment topped the poll as the most important political problem (66 per cent named it as one of their top three). Bolton has taken a battering in the recession: 10 per cent are unemployed, with a 40 per cent increase since Major became prime minister. The recent lay-offs at the Lostock British Aerospace plant - the largest private employer in Bolton - have forced even more on to the dole queues.

Few think the recession likely to end in the near future. The largest group (29 per cent) predicted that the recession would last at least until 1994. Only 4 per cent thought the recession would be over this summer. (Norman 'the recession is over' Lamont was the fifth most unpopular politician.)

Crime capital?

Nearly half also listed crime in their top three issues, responding in part to attempts by local politicians and press to puff up a crime wave in Bolton ('Capital of crime'). Tom Sackville, Tory MP for Bolton West, recently dressed up as a policeman to go on a fact-finding tour of Westhoughton, a one-supermarket-town on the outskirts of the constituency. He concluded that Westhoughton's 'proximity to the motorway network acts as a magnet, attracting criminals from as far away as Merseyside'. The Bolton Evening News has called for 'two years hard labour without comforts' for those accused of stealing car radios, and publishes a weekly list of the names and addresses of poll tax defaulters.

Fear of the future

People's cynicism about politics reflects a wider pessimism about the future, especially among younger people. While there was little celebration of the past (the vast majority believed that they were better off than their parents' generation) there was considerable ambiguity about the future. Nearly a third (32 per cent) thought their children would be worse off and a fifth didn't know. The most pessimistic were people under 35, who made up close on half of those who thought things would be worse for their children's generation.

A lack of optimism about the future also coloured opinions on which British institutions would cease to exist in 50 years time. Despite the high levels of concern expressed about welfare issues like health and housing, more than a fifth predicted that the welfare state would be eliminated by 2042
--a sure sign that they believe things are going to get worse. At the same time, the lack of belief in any prospect of radical change in Britain meant that less than one in four people felt an anachronism like the House of Lords would have disappeared by then.

No choice

In this context, it might seem strange that more than 80 per cent of respondents said they were proud to be British to some degree. But this stock response tells us little about the way people really think. As the overall Living Marxism survey reveals, on every specific issue the most striking response is a lack of faith in the British system.

The deep cynicism expressed about the election in Bolton West illustrates the lack of appeal of the major parties. The Tories are condemned as 'a party of spivs', the Labour Party dismissed as 'a waste of time'. Most see the elections as a charade which has no bearing on their real concerns. As one Halliwell pensioner put it, 'they're all crap'. But until the people of places like Bolton West are presented with an alternative, they'll have no choice.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992

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