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Workington Man must be one part of a coalition

October 31, 2019 - 12:28pm

Will Tanner is the Director of Onward, responding to Freddie Sayers’s post about their new report, ‘The Politics of Belonging.’

Swing voter archetypes are, of course, reductive. They boil down the attitudes and demographic markers of an entire electorate to identify a sliver of voters that will have a disproportionate impact on an election, and the constituencies that may turn on their votes.

Workington Man is no different. Following in the footsteps of Essex Man and Worcester Woman before him, he is an artefact of hard data, not political judgement. The archetype is male, white, did not go to university, voted Leave, and lives in a Northern town because, in all mathematical probability, a tonne of polling data says that these are the characteristics that will be disproportionately influential in 2019.

Women more strongly favour, in headline terms, a society that focuses on giving people more security (70%) over freedom (30%) than men (60% to 40%), but they are less likely to be swing voters this time around. They are more likely to favour restricting free speech than men, more likely to think that it has become harder for people like them to make a decent living and more likely to think technology has made jobs and wages worse. In contrast, men are more averse to the growth of universities and cities and more likely to think communities are more divided and segregated.

This is partly why it is important to remember that this kind of analysis is not exclusive. If Boris focused only on Workington Man, he would lose. He cannot afford to lose his core vote and, as Onward has found previously, there are also 3 million voters under-35 who would consider voting Conservative but do not yet vote for them. There is a broad coalition to be assembled.

The important point is that many of the issues that win over Workington Man — putting public services investment ahead of tax cuts, repairing the fabric of communities, supporting institutions like the family, and boosting technical education over university growth — will unite a broader coalition too. Most voters exhibit strongly communitarian tendencies as they seek protection from an increasingly turbulent world.

This isn’t nostalgic in the sense that people aren’t remembering a golden age when kids played in their streets and the internet didn’t exist. Most people want a society that embraces change over one that preserves tradition. But they want a different kind of change to the liberalisation they’ve been offered in recent decades. And 8 in 10 say they want “gradual change that protects what is important”, rather than “rapid change which might lead to lower living standards in the short term”.

This is the challenge for the Conservatives at this election. We know that Jeremy Corbyn will be promising radical, drastic dislocating change — that takes Britain backwards to the 1970s or worse. Boris Johnson must offer a new philosophy of conservatism for the common good to win over post-Brexit Britain.

Will Tanner is the director of think tank Onward.


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