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National Swing Man, the old and new tribes of British voters

PSEPHOLOGY these These days it’s like taking a trip to an old-fashioned anthropological museum filled with relics of the mysterious tribes that make up Britain’s electorate. In a glass case we find the Mondeo Man, the quintessential swing voter of the 1990s. Next up is Workington Man, a pro-Brexit rugby union fan who switched to the Conservative Party in 2019. Newer samples include Waitrose Woman and her male friend Spotify Dad – a disaffected middle class who has abandoned the Conservative Party. These people inhabit strange lands: Red Walls, Blue Walls, Sea Walls, and Purple Walls.

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Your quintessential helmet-wearing reporter has uncovered another man who embodies the power to reshape the British electorate once again. Our specimens are males, but could easily be females as well. His age ranges from 18 to 80 years old. He may have a white-collar job or a blue-collar job. He voted to leave or remain in the Brexit referendum. He lives somewhere in England – pretty much anywhere. He leans towards the Labor Party. He’s a country swingman.

The National Swing Man reflects an old notion of voters: not of different tribes, but of a single people whose party allegiance ebbs and flows like the tide. In 1945, David Butler, a 20-year-old Oxford undergraduate, applied the basic statistics he honed in cricket to that year’s general election, creating modern electoral science. He converted raw votes into percentages and then calculated changes in party share of the vote. He calls this “swing”. A striking pattern emerges: the swing is similar across constituencies. The young Butler became a fixture on election night television, using his draped “swinger” to predict the night’s story from some of the early results.

Politicians have uncovered more and more tribes as online surveys have become cheap and plentiful. The prototype helped them decipher a more complex and volatile electorate than Butler’s swing gauge. The Brexit referendum broke and reshaped party allegiances. Insurgents enter the field. Age and education replaced class as the best predictors of voting behavior. As the country fights against itself, the national sway of unity is broken: Tories advance in Brexit strongholds, retreat in Remain areas. Butler, who died last November at the age of 98, was baffled. “Compared to the world I live in, the rules of the political game have changed a lot,” he said.

Things changed again. The national swing is once again sweeping through voters like a tidal wave. Under Sir Keir Starmer, Labor leads the Conservatives 46 per cent to 26 per cent, according to a YouGov poll published on March 31. Butler’s approval rating is up 16 points since YouGov’s post-election poll in 2019. Professionals backed Labor by 17 points and manual workers by 16 points. Broken down by age, the swing to Labor looks like this: among 18-24 year olds, 5 per cent; 25-49, 17 points; 50-64, 19; 65+, 18. Focus on tribes and you’ll miss the bigger story.

The National Swing Man doesn’t have much to say about Brexit these days. Butler’s 1964 study of British elections at Nuffield College, Oxford, conducted by Jane Green, Geoffrey Evans and Dan Snow, showed how ossified the Brexit recalibration of. Between 2016 and 2019, support for the Conservatives rose from half to three-quarters, as Brexiteers were drawn to the party and some old Tory Remainers embraced Euroscepticism. However, these relative proportions remain constant from 2019 to December 2022, even as overall support for the Conservative Party declines. YouGov figures show the national tide is pulling Brexiteers and Remainers towards Labour.

Country swingers reflect consensus politics.Voters list economy and health care among their priorities; inflation and emergency room Queuing hurts everyone in the same way. The National Swing Man loves jokes about Liz Truss and lettuce. Eight out of 10 Brits disapprove of Sarah when she wins big. He disagrees with his neighbors on transgender rights, but that doesn’t determine how he votes: just 2% of Brits see it as a political priority. If the Conservatives can recover, it will be about broad questions of leadership and economic capacity, not narrow cultural wedges.

Our old and new specimens make early anthropology a bit outdated. In a new book, Values, Voice and Virtue, academic Matthew Goodwin argues that Labor lost the working class after it was taken over by a cosmopolitan horde he called a new elite. This is a familiar story from the time of Brexit. But Mr Goodwin has not managed to reconcile it with Labor, which has a 16-point lead over the Conservatives in these stalwarts. Political ventriloquist can abuse tribes.sharp point of view attributed to CongressmanThe voices of the Red Wallers on immigration and crime are also heard in any Surrey Conservative association.

Stonehenge via Stevenage

Handled smartly, however, Horde is still useful. They are shorthand for parties to engage in internal debates about where to direct messages and resources to concretize conceptual shifts at the polls into real shifts at the ballot box where it matters.

A new report from Starmerite think tank Labor Together is one such case. It split voters into six tribes, all of which swung to Labor. The party’s strategy so far has focused on recapturing working-class voters in northern towns (the “patriotic left”), which would give Labor a narrow majority. The authors argue that a more ambitious front, incorporating politically non-dogmatic families into bellwether seats such as Stevenage (“a disillusioned suburb”), would produce a massive front. In other words, its mission is to find and win over marginal voters in marginal constituencies by calling for sound governance of the economy and public services. For the past decade, the electorate has been as mysterious as the man who built Stonehenge. Undergraduates from the 1945 class now recognize it.

Read more from our UK politics columnist Bagehot:
Editing Roald Dahl’s Sensitivity Is Stupid (March 23)
It’s too easy to run an illegal business in the UK (March 16)
Thatcher, Sunak and the politics of supermarkets (8 March)

Also: How the Bagehot column got its name

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