The voters that politics forgot

Between the “youthquake” and “Workington Man”, there’s a whole swathe of unpredictable and newly engaged voters that we are missing.

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Come election time, different interest groups always identify certain voters who could “decide” the result. Small business owners, renters, ethnic minority communities, women, students, pensioners, you name it.

These kind of assertions tend to be mocked by polling experts. Just because there’s a demographic bloc within a constituency greater than its majority doesn’t mean it can decide the outcome in that constituency. People grouped the same way don’t necessarily all vote the same way, and also their votes may (and probably do) overlap with said majority. It also depends on who turns out and who doesn’t.

Nevertheless, parties and commentators focus on certain groups that find themselves in the spotlight.

Labour Leavers in the party’s Brexit-leaning seats have received a great deal of attention, for example, as did young voters following the 2017 election.

This is despite most pollsters believing the Brexit Party is more of a threat to Conservative candidates than Labour ones. And the supposed “youthquake” last time round being called into question (there are no official figures for voting by age, though youth turnout in 2017 was estimated as at its highest since the Nineties).

These groups are tempting to focus on, however, because they represent a change in the status quo of British politics (the potential loss of Labour heartlands, or debunking the idea that young people don’t vote, for example). Their voting preferences are also – though often wrongly – assumed.

Less enticing a focus are people whose voting intentions aren’t easy to pin down. This must be partly behind the gap in the analysis of low-income voters and what they want from this election.

At 9.5 million people, low-income voters – usually defined as being on an income of less than 60 per cent of the median after housing costs – make up a large chunk of the electorate. And, according to a recent survey of 15,000 people in August this year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) with Hanbury Strategy, 2.7 million of them are thought to be swing voters.

Turnout increased by 7 percentage points among this group at the last election (compared with the overall rise of 2.5 percentage points) since 2015. This is potentially more significant than the disputed rise in youth turnout. Plus, 59 per cent of low-income voters polled by JRF who hadn’t voted last time say they intend to vote in the next election.

This isn’t automatically good news for the Labour Party, though.

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. And in the words of a report into 30 years of low-income voters using British Election Study data, they are “up for grabs” like never before. They have become less tribally loyal, and more than 50 per cent in 2010-17 changed which party they supported or whether or not they voted between elections. Low-income voters are also twice as likely to make up their mind in the polling booth than the average voter, with only 54 per cent having decided before the campaign.

The biggest group within low-income voters, at around 42 per cent, has been identified as “The Persuadable Middle” in an 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.

Brexit only just makes it into the top five most important issues to low-income voters in general, at 20 per cent, behind the cost of living, health, crime and housing – in that order.

The most recent figures show an 8-point lead for the Labour Party among low-income voters, but Boris Johnson is the preferred choice for Prime Minister by 10 per cent margin. Both he and Jeremy Corbyn are seen as equally “incompetent”, at 34 per cent each.

Low-income voters also have a strong preference for party leaders to “understand people like me”, at 59 per cent, which is a quality favoured over strong leadership (41 per cent).

This is a volatile group that could deliver unpredictable results – the only thing certain is that both the main parties should be paying them attention.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.