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Michael Dugher

The issue of gambling won’t decide the next election, but Red Wall voters will – and politicians should listen to what they have to say.

When I first started knocking on doors for Labour, growing up in a pit village outside Doncaster in the rock solid safe seat of Don Valley, they used to say “you could slap a red rosette on a donkey and it’d win round here”. Years later, I was out canvassing as the MP for the neighbouring South Yorkshire seat of Barnsley East and I asked one elderly lady if she would be voting for me. She replied reassuringly: “Don’t worry, love, I always vote Labour,” before adding “even when you’re rubbish!”

That changed dramatically at the 2019 general election. It wasn’t just that the Conservatives won a landslide majority of 80 or that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn crashed to its lowest number and proportion of seats since 1935, that made the outcome so significant. It was the fact that the Tories won so many seats in long-held Labour strongholds like Leave-voting Don Valley. Many other so-called ‘Red Wall’ constituencies, like Barnsley East, stayed stubbornly Labour, in part, because the Brexit Party stood against the Conservatives and split the anti-Labour vote. The truth is the 2019 general election could have been a lot worse for Labour.

So what happens next? Was this a one-off? Simply a great big protest vote based on Brexit or a damning revulsion of Corbyn’s left wing Labour? Undoubtedly there is more to it than that. The result was also in part down to Boris Johnson. Working class voters in places like South Yorkshire didn’t vote for the Eton-educated Prime Minister because they thought he was one of them. They voted for him because they thought he wasn’t a typical politicians. They thought Brexit-supporting Boris better understood them and their culture. For some time there had been a growing alienation of traditional white working class voters from Labour in many deprived post-industrial areas in the North and the Midlands.

The question today is can Boris hang onto those voters or will they revert back to a seemingly more competent, credible and sensible Labour Party? Nobody knows. Many issues will be in play at the next election and we don’t know what impact the Covid pandemic will have, if at all, on voter attitudes.

Given the Government is currently reviewing gambling and has called for evidence, I was keen to find out more about what those living in these key electoral battlegrounds think about betting. So I commissioned focus groups in 20 marginal constituencies, including in Red Wall places like Doncaster, Durham and Dudley. We also asked YouGov to poll across the UK to gauge the wider country’s attitude.

Views on gambling are never going to determine the outcome of a general election. But the results of our focus groups do say a lot about the wider attitudes held by these key voters.

Anti-gambling prohibitionists routinely accuse the betting industry of trying to “normalise” gambling. But given that betting is something that is enjoyed by 30 million adults - around half the adult population - it was unsurprising to learn that most people regarded it as perfectly normal. Our YouGov poll found that 66 per cent of people say betting has been part of British life and leisure for centuries and 68 per cent believe there’s nothing wrong with having a bet now and then.

There was also a strong sense in the focus groups that many Red Wall voters feel that there are some politicians who don’t understand their lives, perhaps even look down on what they choose to do, and who seem to want to tell people what they can and cannot do with their lives (and with their own money). Many saw threats to people’s enjoyment of betting in the context of a ‘culture war’. And all of this has been brought into sharp focus by lockdown. Simple pleasures like having a drink in the pub, going to the match or visiting the local bookies, have been prohibited for much of the past year.

Which leads me to the next major finding. Voters, especially in Red Wall areas, are concerned about ‘mission creep’ from the Government. The focus groups, which also revealed a growing divide between the north and south, found that the pandemic had left some voters increasingly wary of government intrusion into aspects of their lives, including betting. We tested recent suggestions that punters may have to show their bank statements and pay slips if they wanted to spend more than, say, £100 on betting in a month.

The hostility to this was surprisingly strong. Many expressed genuine horror and disbelief, especially to the notion that somebody else would make a judgement, not simply about whether or not you have the funds available, but whether in their judgement your discretionary spending on betting was too high. Voters thought that help should be targeted at problem gamblers, not the overwhelming majority who bet safely and responsibly.

As one participant in his thirties in Doncaster, said: “It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? I’ll be told how much I can spend on betting, then I’ll get told I can only spend this much on bad food, or alcohol. Am I going to have to show Amazon I can afford what I’m buying on there?”

According to the YouGov poll, 51 per cent believe politicians should not be able to set limits on how much people are allowed to spend on betting, while 59 per cent feared that if there were too many limits, punters will simply move to the unlicensed and illegal online black market, where there are none of the safeguards found in the regulated sector – like strict age and ID checks and safer gambling messages.

My view is that limits are good, which is why people betting online are now strongly encouraged to set their own limits on how much they want to spend. Affordability checks are also a good thing. But technology enables betting companies to see where customers are starting to display what we call ‘markers of harm’. In this way, potential problem gamblers and others who may be more at risk can and are subject to enhanced checks and interventions.

One of the challenges for the industry is that the focus groups also showed that people don’t realise that the UK betting and gaming industry is already one of the most highly-regulated in the world, with some people even believing that online gambling wasn’t regulated at all. This explains why some feel that the Government should take tougher action against our industry. But the groups also pointed to the danger of over-regulation, with a factory worker in Scunthorpe saying: “You can’t regulate everything. You’ve got to take some personal responsibility”.

Gambling reform is never going to be a big political issue. It rarely comes up in an MP’s casework. For those that favour reform - me included - our recent polling and focus groups further strengthened the Government’s stated intention in the Gambling Review to “strike the right balance” between not interfering in the enjoyment of millions, while providing better protections for vulnerable people.

What made me smile was a comment from another man in Doncaster, who summed up the feelings of so many Red Wall voters when he said: “It’s a cultural thing here. I like betting, it’s part of my week. I work hard all week and at the end of the week, yeah, I might spend more than I should on drinking and betting, but so what? It’s my money and I’ve paid my taxes on it. They don’t understand us, and they think we should all be cycling or whatever instead.”

Gambling will not be one of the issues that will determine the outcome of the next general election. But Red Wall voters, including in places like Doncaster, will. Politicians should listen to what they have to say.

This article first appeared on The House Live.

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