Britain will vote on December 12, the first election in that month since 1923, the third in four years, and a contest that is likely to be the most unpredictable in a generation.
There are two main reasons for this: an increasingly fickle electorate, and someone election strategists are calling “Workington Man.”
The term appears in a report out today (pdf, p. 18) from Onward, the right-leaning think tank. Workington Man is white, over 45 years of age, without a college degree, and mostly to be found in northern English towns that traditionally vote Labour, according to James O’Shaughnessy and Will Tanner in “The Politics of Belonging.” Those towns include Workington, Wigan, Wakefield, Castleford, St. Helens, Halifax, and Dewsbury. These parts of England are roughly equivalent to America’s Rust Belt in terms of former industrial strength, current economic decline, and a cultural suspicion of the forces of globalization.
Workington Man replaces Worcester Woman, the British equivalent of America’s soccer mom, or the swing voter that pollsters and demographers once identified as a key target in terms of campaign and policy. Worcester Woman was in focus in Britain’s 1997 election, which ended 18 years of Conservative rule and saw Tony Blair in Downing Street with a landslide Labour win.
But now, the key member of the British political tribe is supposed to be Workington Man, at least according to the narrative being pushed by right-of-center figures. Labour would probably still count him as its own, and voting patterns until now in Workington constituency bear this out.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, who are opposed to Brexit, are focusing on voters that might be described as “Richmond Remainers.” It is a reference to the green and pleasant London suburb of Richmond, which voted to remain in the EU. Six months after the Brexit referendum, a Liberal Democrat political novice defeated the incumbent Conservative MP in a by-election. (In 2017, the Conservatives won Richmond back.)
According to Tanner, Workington Man is key because Boris Johnson’s governing Conservative Party, which badly needs a parliamentary majority, risks losing roughly half the 13 seats it holds in Scotland, and several more in London and the south of England. Those constituencies voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. Enter Workington Man, whose supposed hometown has only once sent a Conservative politician to parliament (and that was more than 40 years ago), but voted to leave the EU in 2016. That’s where Johnson’s Tories could find support, according to Onward’s report, which insists that Workington Man is “the median voter of the group essential for either party to win a majority (Middle England).”
There may be something in this analysis. Writing in The Times, London (paywall), polling expert John Curtice pointed to “nearly 50 Labour seats that could fall into the Tory [Conservative] column… disproportionately located in the north of England and the Midlands, where many a voter backed Leave.”
Workington Man seems to offer confirmation that the British electorate has become more promiscuous about party loyalty, swinging both ways between the Tories and Labour in the last election two years ago.
Research from the British Election Study (BES), the longest running social science survey in the UK, found that the 2017 election “saw the highest levels of switching between the Conservatives and Labour since the BES started in 1964.” This was because of “electoral shocks” such as Brexit, with nearly one-third (31%) of Conservative supporters switching to Labour in 2017 because they were not in favor of Britain leaving the European Union.
The survey also showed that nearly half the electorate voted for different parties in the past three elections—2010, 2015, and 2017.
Six weeks to the election, and four parties—the Conseravtives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and the Brexit Party—are running in double figures in the opinion polls, underlining the point made by BES co-director, Professor Jane Green: “Almost half the electorate are now floating voters.”
Johnson’s Conservatives are at 40% in the latest poll by Opinium Research, the highest figure in a single poll since mid-August. The same poll shows Labour at 24%, the Lib Dems at 15%, and the Brexit Party at 10%.
But even a 10-point poll lead right now cannot be seen as a reliable pointer to the future. Workington Man, assuming he exists, is not so easy to pin down.