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1 November 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:50am

Forget Workington Man, meet Bookcase Billy and Facebook Mum

In the language of mildly offensive Westminster shorthand, we identify the groups that could be pivotal in this election. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

Goodbye to Essex Man, farewell to Worcester Woman. The new voter set to swing the next election is… Workington Man!

According to a recent report by the Tory think tank Onward, older white male voters in places like the coastal town of Workington, a marginal Cumbrian Labour-held constituency, could decide the next election.

The proverbial Workington Man is described by the think tank as an over-45, white, pro-Brexit male without a degree, who has lived in his home over a decade and feels the country is drifting away from his cultural and economic worldview. Labour-held seats in the north and Midlands are allegedly populated by these men, who could be pivotal in the next election.

The report suggests the Conservative party will be targeting “security-focused, pro-Brexit and older seats” that it doesn’t currently hold, which include a “high preponderance” of towns with a “proud rugby league tradition” (Workington is one of them): “Rugby League towns are fast becoming the key electoral battleground between the two main parties.”

This is not a new theory in British politics. I remember the former Labour frontbencher Jamie Reed urging Ed Miliband to focus Labour’s efforts on the “rugby league towns” and “lower-league football cities” back in 2014, to avoid disconnecting from a “forgotten England”.

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Former Labour MP Simon Danczuk told this magazine just before the 2015 election that his party’s leadership was detached from “Rochdale, Rotherham, Runcorn or anywhere else beginning with an ‘r’ outside the M25” (including literal Rugby).

These arguments only intensified after the EU referendum result, when England’s “left behind” towns became a flashpoint on party radars. At last year’s party conferences, both the Conservatives and Labour firmly directed their messaging at smaller towns. The latter released a striking party political broadcast at the time, which a Labour source in one of these seats described to me afterwards as “pretty patronising – flatcaps and whippets”.

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The use of these derivative characters and old-fashioned stereotypes in British electioneering is both patronising and counter-productive when it comes to campaign targeting. Yet whatever you think of Workington Man, he’s now a character in this election – like Mondeo Man, Essex Man, Worcester Woman, Pebbledash People, Motorway Man, Sierra Man and Holby City Woman before him.

Which other overlooked demographics could be deciding our country’s future come 12 December? In the traditional language of mildly offensive shorthands, here are a few who could swing the election:

Facebook Mum

She’s a baby boomer, who apparently shares 20 per cent more than any other generation on Facebook, and could live anywhere. Her children do not use Facebook. In fact, she is unknowingly mocked by younger generations for her wild punctuation and excessive use of kisses in public Facebook comments, imploring her friends to “copy and paste” alarmist hoax posts and bogus scam/hack warnings, and sharing inspirational memes and quotes with abandon.

A mix of enthusiasm and gullibility on Facebook makes her a prime disseminator of misinformation. Blame no-deal Brexit and any future nuclear war on Facebook Mum.

Halls Hoverer

During the row over the date of the December election, my colleague Stephen Bush patiently explained that no, the majority of students wouldn’t be finishing term by 12 December. In fact, most students will still be at university, in varying states of festive fancy dress.

Does this matter either way? In the 2017 election, students were still in term time but had generally finished exams, so were more likely to have gone home for the summer. Only 25 per cent voted in their university constituency; 70 per cent voted at home.

Generally, students are assumed to prefer Labour and Remain parties. Last election, Labour came 45 points ahead among full-time students. Younger voters favoured Remain in the 2016 referendum, and there is polling to suggest 74 per cent of newly eligible voters would back Remain if there was another vote.

The BBC has identified some seats where term-time students could make a difference, including Canterbury, which Labour won for the first time in 2017 (partly down to student votes, according to local Conservatives).  And the student body could help hold the tightest marginal university seat of Newcastle-under-Lyme, where Labour’s majority is just 30 votes, or upset the Tories’ 31-vote hold on Southampton Itchen. More than 30 seats with a local university are held with sub-5,000 majorities, including Loughborough. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which he only holds by 5,034, is home to Brunel University.

In marginal seats home to sizeable university populations, students’ votes and manpower could prove useful – but there’s no guarantee which party they’ll be campaigning for. Moreover it would be at the expense of voting and canvassing in their home constituencies, which could also be key marginal seats.

Pothole Person

It is said by weary councillors that governments stand and fall – or skid off the road – on the issue of potholes. The state of our roads is pretty bad, and with a winter election, rain and frost will make it even more dangerous to drive on already poor-quality roads, and will cause more potholes. That’s where Pothole Person comes in. They probably live in the Home Counties. They probably voted Remain (or half-heartedly for Leave) but are mainly keen for it to be over and done with. And they’re probably fuming about potholes.

England’s ten authorities with the highest number of pothole reports yet to be fixed are all Tory-run bar one (Cheshire East, which the Tories lost control of for the first time in May’s local elections this year to a Labour coalition). Topped by Surrey, this list spans Home Counties and Tory shires. According to 2018 figures, one in five of Britain’s local roads were in a poor condition due to potholes – and are likely to become unusable in the next five years unless they’re repaired. Could this daily inconvenience turn small-c conservative, Brexit-sceptic motorists into Labour or Lib Dem voters in the polling booth?

Shy Non-Tory

Remember those cheeky Shy Tories of the 2015 election, who delivered David Cameron his surprising majority? Well, watch out this time for the shy non-Tory voters in Tory areas who voted Remain, are concerned about the crumbling public realm, and are looking for another party to take their vote.

They could be hiding in the number of places across the country: Cheltenham, which is held by a little over 2,000 Conservative voters, and was a Lib Dem seat up until the 2015 election; commuter-belt St Albans in Hertfordshire, where the Tories took over from Labour in 2005 but the Lib Dems are rising, and Winchester, an affluent enclave in the southeast where the Lib Dems are looking to oust the Tories, who won the seat in 2010. Look for a glint of rebellion in the eyes of people at the Waitrose checkout or behind the wheel of a 4×4 next time you’re around those parts.

Bookcase Billy

Bookcase Billy is a private renter; visible up and down the country, but particularly where rents and living costs outstrip wages. Billy encounters an identical Ikea Billy Bookcase in each property he moves to, or lugs his own from flat to flat in the hope of one day owning a property.

In 2017, there was a sizeable swing to Labour among private renters – up from a lead of 11 points to a lead of 23 points, according to Ipsos MORI data. Turnout in these group also went up by 8 per cent (a higher jump than any other housing group), to 53 per cent.

In fact, Shelter found that the number of private renters living in a constituency could be an even stronger predictor of its voting pattern than the age of voters – suggesting the swing among private renters towards Labour had an impact in English marginal seats.

There are 52 marginal seats in England where low-income private renters (who fall beneath the minimum income standard after paying rent) are disproportionately represented, according to YouGov. It calculated that the Tories lost eight seats of this kind, and made no gains in any of those held by Labour. Some of these seats could be crucial to the next election result: Hastings and Rye, Crewe and Nantwich, Croydon Central, Bedford, Plymouth Sutton and Davenport, High Peak and Colne Valley.

And don’t forget that Bookcase Billy also has parents, who – while potentially more financially stable – may have their own voting preferences influenced by their child’s precarious housing situation in this election.

Stretched Switcher

Low-income voters are turning out to vote in ever greater numbers, and more likely to switch parties than ever before, according to a recent survey carried out in August by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) with Hanbury Strategy

In fact, turnout increased by 7 percentage points among this group at the 2017 election (compared with the overall rise of 2.5 percentage points). This is far more significant than the rise in youth turnout, which was actually lower than first reported. Significantly, 59 per cent of low-income voters polled by the JRF who hadn’t voted last time say they intend to vote in the next election.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily good news for any one party. In 2017, Labour reversed its declining support among low-income voters, increasing its share by 13 percentage points among the demographic. But so did the Conservatives – by 5 percentage points, according to British Election Study data.

The main group among low-income voters has been labelled “The Persuadable Middle” in analysis of the JRF data. Slightly over half of this group favour the two big parties (with the Conservatives leading by 10 per cent), and they voted to leave the EU by a small margin (53 per cent to 47 per cent). Just under half are over 55, and they don’t have particularly strong views on privatisation or nationalisation.