The usual political rules are history – these are the key questions for this general election

The electoral effect of the prime minister’s principal adviser is one matter still hotly debated. His satirical detractors have coined the expression ‘Classic Dom’ to ridicule his many clever strategy-gone-wrongs

What to watch out for in a pre-Christmas election

All the parties, though especially the Tories, are counting on a radical shift in traditional voting patterns and loyalties to drive the vote in this general election.

In fact, since the 1960s the historic class-based voting patterns observed for the first half of the 20th century had begun to erode because of social change, easer upward mobility and rising standards of living. Declining reliance on heavy industry and trade union membership presented problems for Labour; but so did the loosening of old ties on the right such as involvement with the armed forces and the church. Where once it was not surprising to find academics or public service professionals voting Tory, by the 1990s it had become unusual.

By the turn of the millennium – driven by an on-off revival of third-party politics (the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors; Ukip and latterly the Brexit Party; the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru) – voters were generally more willing to vary their voting patterns, especially between different types of election (UK general election; Cardiff Bay/Holyrood; European elections; local council elections; by-elections of all kinds). The latest British Election Study suggests around half of British voters now style themselves as “floating”.

So the search began, in the 1980s, by the political classes for new ways to classify and identify voters – usually using an amalgam of geography, class and what has become known as “identity”. In the Eighties, the Conservatives sought out “Essex man”: a skilled or semi-skilled manual worker (a “C1” or “C2” in sociologists’ jargon) who had aspirations to join the middle classes, own their own home (including their former council house) and enjoy the finer things in life, and who identified voting Conservative with either having “arrived” or being on the road to arriving, socially.

By the same token, Tony Blair and new Labour identified “Worcester woman” and “Mondeo man” as the kind of aspirational voters who, while basically content with their economic lot, were concerned about the state of the public services they relied on, and were becoming disillusioned with a Conservative government that seemed to have run out of ideas and energy. Yet they did not want a return to union power, high taxes and inefficient nationalised industries.

In 1996, Tony Blair, then Labour leader and referring to the bitter loss for his party in the 1992 general election, said: “I can vividly recall the exact moment that I knew the last election was lost. I was canvassing in the midlands on an ordinary suburban estate. I met a man polishing his Ford Sierra, self-employed electrician, Dad always voted Labour. He used to vote Labour, he said, but he bought his own home, he had set up his own business, he was doing quite nicely, so he said I’ve become a Tory. He was not rich but he was doing better than he [once] did and, as far as he was concerned, being better off meant being Tory too.

“In that moment the basis of our failure – the reason why a whole generation has grown up under the Tories – became plain to me. You see, people judge us on their instincts about what they believe our instincts to be. And that man polishing his car was clear: his instincts were to get on in life, and he thought our instincts were to stop him. But that was never our history or our purpose.”

There are voters just like Mondeo man who are set to decide this election too. They, and a number of other new factors, will influence the final result.

So who is ‘Workington man’?

Like Mondeo/Sierra man, Essex man and Worcester woman, this new archetype for 2019 seems to have been identified through a mix of focus groups and psephological analysis.

Today, in the new culture war, we have “Workington man”: a typical Leave voter, unimpressed by the “Westminster elite” but who had previously tended to vote Labour out of tribal loyalty.

Typically they are supposed to be non-graduate, male, employed, and now hostile to the sort of Islingtonian metropolitan prejudices personified in Jeremy Corbyn. They are “old Labour” or traditional Labour voters, socially conservative and residing in the rugby league constituencies of the north, according to Lord O’Shaughnessy, the Conservative peer and former No 10 director of policy who now runs the think tank Onward.

As he says: “The upcoming general election requires a leap of faith by people who have never voted Tory before.” Much will turn on how far they trust the Tories to spend more on the NHS, schools and the police – the pledges are there, but are they believable?

Workington man tends to live in de-industrialised “left-behind Britain”, and is the broad counterpart of the blue-collar workers who tended to favour Donald Trump in the US in 2016 – their patriotic resentments ignored and disdained by the Labour/Democrat ruling elite.

The question, then, is where they might now go?

Some will “stick with Labour” because they simply distrust the Tories and Boris Johnson, with vestigial tribal identities. Others will defect to Nigel Farage, as the man whose argues that an “open doors” EU immigration policy has damaged their living standards and prospects for their children. Others, yes, will believe that Johnson has achieved most of what they wish for as Leave voters but who is, crucially, the leader of a party that can actually form a government – unlike Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party.

In truth, geographical categories have only limited use; the sociological similarities cut right across the geography, at least in England. Thus we can identify Doncaster Central (Labour, held by Rosie Winterton MP), Warley (Labour, John Spellar) and Vale of Clwyd (Labour, Chris Ruane) as all basically socially deprived and with very similar contribution patterns in the “Revoke Article 50” mass petition earlier this year – around only 6 per cent of the electorate. They are not in Cumbria.

By contrast, Labour seats such as Hornsey and Wood Green (40.3 per cent), Bristol West (40 per cent) and Hampstead and Kilburn (35.1 per cent) shows a much more militantly pro-EU stance. Hence the culture split, or “war” as is alleged, in Labour ranks.

Is there a Conservative equivalent?

If there is, they might well be found in the Conservative constituencies with the highest sign-up to the Revoke petition, as well as some of the highest votes for Remain in 2016. These voters are the ones most likely to contribute to a Liberal Democrat revival, or maybe even a Labour one. After all, Canterbury turned Labour in 2017 for the first time since 1918 precisely because of its substantial student (that is, Remain) vote.

On that basis, the Conservatives may be expected to have to fight especially hard to retain: Richmond Park (Eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith defending against the Lib Dems); cities of London and Westminster (Chuka Umunna attacking for the Liberal Democrats); Wimbledon; Chelsea and Fulham; and Finchley and Golders Green (the latter overlaid by another culture war centred on Labour’s antisemitism).

Will the weather affect anything?

As we have not had a wintry election since 1974, or a December election since 1923, it is difficult to predict what will happen with turnout.

The old rule was that Tory voters were more likely to get to the polls on especially cold or wet days (and to vote Tory when they got there) because they were more likely to own a car, or have a party worker able to give an older voter a lift to the polling station.

That analysis seems outdated now, but it may still be true that some older voters of both sides might skip voting on a cold, dark evening, for obvious reasons. Students – though this may be an unfair stereotype – might also be distracted by seasonal revelries and indeed to have failed to register to vote, either in their university residence or at their parents’ home, or both. It would, though, take an exceptionally close result for any of this to make a big difference. Most university towns are already in the Lib Dem/Labour column.

As for canvassing, old-school campaigning and public meetings, in 2019 these may be much less important than modern digital targeting of swing voters using sophisticated algoythmic techniques.

Which brings us to…

What is the ‘Cummings Effect’?

The electoral effect of the prime minister’s principal advisor is hotly debated. His satirical detractors have coined the expression “Classic Dom” to ridicule what appear to be his many clever strategy-gone-wrongs, such as his scheme to prorogue parliament, overturned so humiliatingly by the courts.

On the other hand, Cummings played a key role in the 2106 Vote Leave campaign and is credited with the prime minister’s basic lines of political attack now. These are “get Brexit done”; “people vs parliament”; “the Brexit Party cannot win the election and form a government”. With the assistance of other advisers, historically including the Lynton Crosby organisation, it may yet prove enough to see Johnson in No 10 with his own mandate.

Should we care about personalities?

At the 2019 election there will be an unusually storing focus on personalities. In national terms we may be treated to a many-sided TV debate between Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Jo Swinson, Nigel Farage and Caroline Lucas, plus figures from the SNP and Plaid Cymru at the Scottish and Welsh versions.

It will be the first proper prime ministerial TV debates since 2010 – the “I agree with Nick” shows, featuring the now almost forgotten figures of Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

This year both main party leaders may assume they will be character-assassinated by their enemies in the media: Corbyn over accusations of antisemitism and Johnson over his private life.

At the constituency level, we will be treated to an unprecedented array of senior figures choosing to stand as independents, such as Frank Field (Birkenhead, former Labour, now Birkenhead Social Justice Party) and the former Conservative cabinet ministers, now Independent Conservatives, Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) and Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge).

According to his website, Hammond’s “proudest political achievement” is “Forcing the Home Office to back down on a plan to locate a hostel for convicted paedophiles in a county mansion it had secretly refurbished in the middle of Runnymede, yards from a primary school.”

How far this gets him on 12 December against an official Tory candidate remains to be seen.

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