Workington Man strikes back

As Brexit day gets inexorably closer (as of today the 31 January 2020 deadline seems an absolute certainty), now might be a good time to remind ourselves how we got here and what ‘Brexit’ might really mean. And by this I am not thinking so much about the economic impact, important as this is. Rather, I’m thinking about the political, ideological, social and cultural dimensions.

More specifically, I’m thinking about all those ex-Labour voters who have swept Boris Johnson into power. Although it is probably too early to conduct a proper analysis of the general election (or as some might have it, the second Brexit referendum), it is already clear that without a significant number of previously Labour voters at least temporarily changing their political allegiance, things would have worked out very differently. And although it all too easy to generalise, many of these individuals do appear to share a number of characteristics when it comes to political and cultural outlooks. Over the three and half years since the original Brexit referendum there has been a plethora of research into the demographics of ‘leave’ voters and the results probably make uncomfortable reading for ardent ‘remain’ supporters.

However, one of the myths that needs to be debunked at the outset is the idea that anyone who voted ‘leave’ in the original referendum was a disaffected Northerner (and probably male, white and of a certain age) who had somehow become ‘left behind’ in the race of economic and cultural globalisation. Very early on following the referendum there was firm evidence to dispute this theory. As Danny Dorling notes in his analysis of the final Lord Ashcroft exit poll:

The outcome of the EU referendum has been unfairly blamed on the working class in the North of England. In fact, because of differential turnout and the size of the denominator population, most people who voted Leave lived in the South of England. Furthermore, according to Michael Ashcroft’s final poll, of all those who voted for Leave 59 per cent were middle class (A, B or C1), and 41 per cent were working class (C2, D or E). The proportion of Leave voters who were of the lowest two social classes (D and E) was just 24 per cent.[1]

So in blunt statistical terms, the idea that the majority of ‘leave’ voters were ‘left-behind working class Northerners’ simply doesn’t stack up. However, perhaps what’s more interesting is to look at any commonalities between the various factions of ‘leave’ voters, rather than focus on demographic differences.

However, before exploring this further, I think it important to address another misconception regarding Brexit, which is to do with the economic rationale behind the decision to leave the EU. Although I began this piece by saying that I wanted to look at the political, ideological, social and cultural reasons behind Brexit, there is clearly an economic dimension, and there is a particular group of ‘Brexiteers’ for whom this is an important issue (although clearly this is still intertwined with politics and ideology). This group might best be described as the ‘Global Brexiteers’ for whom the EU has always been an impediment to true globalisation, and more especially, true globalisation on British terms. I made reference to this group in my previous post on Brexit and nostalgia, in which I cited Edoardo Campanella and Marta Dassù’s paper on this subject.[2]

I would argue that for this particular group the political-economic argument for Brexit is dominant, even though as Campanella and Dassù point out, this viewpoint is itself based on a nostalgic longing for a lost imperial greatness. Broadly speaking, and in political terms, their representatives can be found in the European Research Group, which up until the recent election were essentially holding the Conservative party to ransom.

However, as I also noted in that same post, there is another group of individuals for whom Brexit offers the promise of a return to a different type of lost world. This group, rather disparagingly (and inaccurately in my view) referred to as ‘Little Englanders’ by Campanella and Dassù, are suffering from what they refer to as ‘defensive nostalgia’, which ‘embodies the frustrations of a low-skilled working class’.[3] Now it so happens that this particular group of individuals would also, broadly speaking, fit the profile of so-called ‘Workington Man’, who was one of the primary targets in the Conservative election campaign. Furthermore, there also appears to be at least some overlap between these individuals and those who could be described as the ‘deindustrialised working class’, a term that Lisa Mckenzie uses to great effect in her paper on ‘Brexit and the land of no-hope and glory’.[4]

Although the term ‘Workington Man’ has been dismissed in some quarters as yet another crude electoral campaigning stereotype[5], it is worth looking at origins of the term. It was first coined in a report by the centre-right think tank Onward, the final version of which was published shortly before the December 2019 election.[6] The findings of the report are based on research conducted by Hanbury Strategy, who surveyed 5000 people and conducted a number of focus groups. The report’s basic argument is that over the last few years there has been a shift in social attitudes regarding the balance between individual freedom and the desire for security – both economic and socio-cultural.

According to the report’s authors, since the late 1960s British politics has been organised around the principle of ever-increasing individual freedom in the economic, social, cultural and political spheres. However, more recently (although rather unhelpfully the authors do not specify an exact time period) the liberal democratic consensus on which these organising principles were based appears to have fractured. As the authors note:

At its most extreme we see this collapse of liberalism in rising levels of support for authoritarianism and “strong man” leadership, especially among younger voters. In the USA, one in six people now believe army rule to be a good system of government, up from one in sixteen in 1995. Populist movements have emerged across Europe, leading in some cases even to national populist governments…We discover the same militant tendency in the UK. More than a third (35%) of under-35 year old voters believe the army would be a good way to run the country and nearly a quarter (24%) think democracy is a bad way to run the country, compared to 15% and 7% respectively for those over-65 years old. Nearly two-thirds support a strong leader who “does not have to bother with Parliament”, compared to half (52%) of over 65s.[7]

Although the majority of those questioned did not hold such extreme views the research did find:

…that by a ratio of 2-to-1, voters want to live in a society that provides greater security not greater freedom. While Westminster and Whitehall are still locked into a paradigm that places the extension of liberty above all other ends of public policy, the public mood has changed…We find that it is more security they crave, protection from the accelerating headwinds of globalisation and social reform, not yet greater exposure to the howling gales of change. Seen through this lens, the disenchantment with politics as usual is not because of some great loss of faith in the institutions of democracy, but rather a large and growing dissonance between what voters want from their politics and what is on offer from their parties. Politicians ignore this gap at their peril, because this is where true populism festers.[8]

But where does Workington Man come into all this? In order to appreciate where this (apparently) crude stereotype comes from, I need to briefly develop a bit more of the Onward report’s central argument. This is that with regards to the trade-off between individual freedom and greater security, there are five distinct voter types that any aspiring government needs to recognise: the ‘Freedom Fighters’, who favour maximum individual freedom on both the economic and socio-cultural fronts and who voted overwhelmingly ‘remain’ in the referendum; ‘Old New Labour’, who desire economic security but favour socio-cultural freedom, and who also voted heavily ‘remain’; ‘Middle England’, who favour both economic and socio-cultural security and who voted ‘leave’ by a sizeable majority; the ‘Provincial Right’, who favour economic freedom but socio-cultural security and who voted ‘leave’ by a small majority ; and finally the ‘Securitarians’, who strongly favour more extreme forms of economic and socio-cultural security, voted heavily ‘leave’, and would probably be quite comfortable living under an authoritarian regime.

Each group has its own set of demographics, but the one that the report is particularly interested in is ‘Middle England’. The voters in this group are, according to the report’s authors, the ones any aspiring government needs to win over, and such a ‘voter archetype’ (the report’s own term) is ‘Workington Man’:

“Workington Man” is the new voter archetype and the key swing voter in Britain today. This voter is likely to be over 45 years old, white, does not have a degree and has lived in his home for over 10 years. He voted to Leave the EU in 2016 and thinks the country is moving away from his views both economically and culturally.

The typical “Workington Man” favours security over freedom across both social and economic axes, but leans much more towards security on social issues. He wants government to prioritise apprenticeships rather than cut the cost of student loans and thinks government should promote a shared sense of national identity over a diversity of identities. Workington Man is more likely to think that crime is a major issue facing the country and twice as likely as the rest of the population to think that immigration is a major issue. He is particularly sceptical about the benefits of globalisation and thinks that we have a special responsibility to protect local institutions such as pubs and post offices from closure.[9]

This is probably the first time that most people will ever have heard of the Cumbrian town of Workington, including, it would seem, many in the higher echelons of the Labour party. And I mention this because Workington, like many other Labour marginals, fell to the Conservatives in the December 2019 election. Interestingly, thought, the report finds little evidence of the type of nostalgia for a bygone age cited by Campanella and Dassù, and a desire to reverse all the advances regarding individual freedom. Rather, there seems to be a sense that having achieved such advances over the last 50 years or so, now it is time to regain a sense of belonging and security. In reality, of course, this could mean a swing towards some form of national populism even though the authors of the report caution against this.

Moving onto McKenzie’s paper, as I mentioned earlier her focus is on the deindustrialised working class. She uses an ethnographic approach to capture the narratives of marginalised, despairing and disillusioned working-class people.  Not all voted ‘leave’ in the Brexit referendum but none of them seemed particularly opposed to it. The paper focuses on two particular geographical areas: Whitechapel, London, and two ex-mining towns on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire borders.

Examples from London include weekly conversations with ‘Peter’, a 66 year old ex-street cleaner who had lived in the area for 40 years and now occupies one of the last housing association block of flats in the area.  Although he did not vote at all in the Brexit referendum, he comes across as so despairing about the future that he doesn’t care one way or the other.  He is particularly worried about the ‘Yuppie drones’ who are buying up expensive apartments in the area. His conversations betray a deep sense of unfairness and loss, and fear for the future.

Mckenzie also talked regularly with a group of women in the area, including ‘Sally’ who is officially homeless and on the council housing list, along with 25,000 other people in the borough.  Some of her friends saw Brexit as a way to ‘solve’ their problems because it would put a curb on immigration and the influx of cheap labour.  Overall, though, there was a sense of despair and disillusionment regarding the present and the future, and the idea that Brexit could not make things any worse for them than they were already.

The other part of her research focused on two ex-mining towns in the East Midlands, which were characterised by new, deskilled jobs in warehousing and distribution with very poor working conditions.  These areas in the past had had long traditions of organised labour struggles in traditional industries, for example, coal mining, but were now completely hollowed out through deindustrialisation.  Mckenzie spoke with a number of residents in the area, including ‘Jan’ and ‘Harry’, a retired couple in their 70s who had not worked for over 20 years following the closure of the local pit and clothing manufacturing company.  Again, there was a sense of despair, loss and fear of the future, and a loss of faith in both the local and national Labour parties.

In her analysis Mckenzie comments on the problem of ‘middle-class, cosmopolitan’ prejudice regarding these kinds of communities, which tended to characterise ‘leave’ voters as ‘left-behind’ and ignorant.  In many cases the problem was further exacerbated by the use of the pejorative term ‘white working class’ to (wrongly) describe members of this group, which created an embarrassing contradiction: a class that had:

…lost the symbolic status their colour and their class had awarded in the past, and had become ‘abject and white’. Consequently this has left many of those communities haunted with collective post-traumatic stress.[10] (p.277)

With regards to the whole ‘left-behind’ debate surrounding Brexit, Mckenzie is very critical:

While there is some truth in this position, much of it is incorrect and disingenuous. It misunderstands and underestimates the depth and intensity of the devastation that has been experienced by working-class people, their communities and their identities for over 30 years. The debate is hardly enriched by a growing problematization of the so-called ‘white working class’. All working-class people have seen falling incomes, declining opportunities for their children to get on the housing ladder, find well-paid jobs, and enter into higher education. But for some reason it is the ‘white working class’ that is named – not only as economically impoverished but also culturally impoverished…[11]

Furthermore:

The rhetoric of ‘left behind’ supports this devalued identity of the deindustrialized working class. It obstructs any genuine understanding of the structural nature of deindustrialization, of class inequality, and of class prejudice. Instead, it patronizingly dismisses the poor white working class as ‘old fashioned’ and unmodern, immobilized by a nostalgic longing for the past. As local and national politics swing backwards and forwards every 5–10 years and the economy booms and busts, housing bubbles inflate and shiny towers rise out of the ground, middle-class parents can use their previously collected capital (cultural, social and economic) to weather these storms. The overarching narrative amongst working-class people in Britain like Sally in London, or the men and women in the mining towns, is that they have nothing in their immediate history to draw upon and no economic or social capital to trade.[12]

As Mckenzie points out, the real message of the Brexit referendum is that Britain is a deeply divided country, especially in terms of class and geographical location. She concludes by writing:

…it has been made clear that half of the population is not visible to the other half of the population. The people who were once categorized as ‘respectable working class’ have been devalued in the last 30 years, and are now ‘residuum’. A fact that perhaps middle-class ‘remainers’ surmised as did Charles Booth in the 1880s, they were of ‘no political threat – just a social problem’ a detail that no one had bothered to tell them (about). Consequently the real challenge for sociology now in these times of political, social and economic flux is how we understand and articulate class distinction, and how we expose deep structural inequalities that are hiding in plain sight behind the cultural distinction of class prejudice.[13]

The strength of Mckenizie’s research, in my view, is that it captures the profound sense of despair, loss, fear and betrayal for many people who either voted for Brexit (and quite possibly Conservative for the first time in December 2019) or who were not too bothered about the final result. For them, things really can’t get any worse than they already are. What’s less clear, however, is whether some or all of this group of deindustrialised working class fit neatly (or at all) into the category of ‘Middle England’/ ‘Workington (Wo)Man’. I suspect that some would fit that category, whereas others are likely to be found in the more extreme ‘Securitarian’ group.

I think what comes out of both of these pieces of research is a rejection by a significant proportion of the population of the liberal democratic status quo. Together, according to the Onward research, the ‘Middle England’ and ‘Securitarian’ groups make up 45% the population. For both these groups, economic and socio-cultural security matter more than individual freedom. Perhaps another way to look at this is to say that for many people, the promises of greater freedom either failed to materialise in the first place or were found to be wanting. And bearing in mind that the new Johnson administration owes its majority in large part to those who feel betrayed and abandoned by (metropolitan) Labour in particular, and the whole liberal democratic project in general, it is likely that over the next few years we shall see what a politics based on belonging and security really means.

References

  1. Danny Dorling, ‘Brexit, the NHS and the Elderly Middle Class’, Soundings, 2017, 50–53, p.50.
  2. Edoardo Campanella and Marta Dassù, ‘Brexit and Nostalgia’, Survival, 61.3 (2019), 103–11
  3. Ibid, p.108
  4. Lisa Mckenzie, ‘The Class Politics of Prejudice: Brexit and the Land of No-Hope and Glory’, The British Journal of Sociology, 68.S1 (2017), S265–80 <https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-4446.12329>.
  5. See for example Green, Miranda, “Workington Man” Is Just the Latest Depressing Political Caricature, Financial Times, 2019 <https://www.ft.com/content/9f8e831e-fafe-11e9-98fd-4d6c20050229> [accessed 24 December 2019]
  6. Will Tanner and James O’Shaughnessy, The Politics of Belonging: What Is Driving the Sea Change in Our Politics and Why We Must Embrace Conservatism for the Common Good (Onward, October 2019).
  7. Ibid, p.3
  8. Ibid, p.4, italics in original
  9. Ibid, p.19
  10. Mckenzie, ‘The Class Politics of Prejudice’, p.277
  11. Ibid, p.277
  12. Ibid, p.277
  13. Ibid, p.277