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Workington Man: The swing voter in Britain’s Brexit election?

By AFP - Nov 06,2019 - Last updated at Nov 06,2019

A pro-Brexit man (right) argues with a group of anti-Brexit demonstrators after Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage addressed an election campaign event in Workington, Cumbria, on Wednesday (AFP photo)

WORKINGTON, United Kingdom — Hot on the heels of Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman comes Workington Man — the swing voter who British Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs to convince to win next month's election.

At least that's the theory of one think tank, which has developed the latest in a tradition of alliteratively titled stereotypes considered crucial to winning a parliamentary majority.

Workington, a rural constituency on England's most northwesterly coast, has been Labour for 100 years, with only a three-year blip in the 1970s when it went Conservative.

But it voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, and the current Labour MP voted Remain — a discrepancy that some believe could give Johnson a chance in the December 12 polls.

Repairing his lobster pot in a fishing hut near the harbour, Alan Ferris admitted he fits the description of "Workington Man" set out by the Tory-leaning Onward think tank — an older, white, northern English non-graduate who voted for Brexit.

But the 67-year-old, who has held many jobs from coal mining to construction, told AFP: "If I vote Conservative, it'll be by mistake and I'd chop my fingers off so I won't do it again."

Hostility to the Tories is strong in this rundown former industrial town, which after the closure of its coal and steel works, is dependent for many jobs on the nearby Sellafield nuclear plant.

But many here also have doubts about Labour's leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has promised sweeping nationalisations and higher taxes on the wealthy.

He has vowed to renegotiate Britain's exit terms with the EU and hold a second referendum, but has yet to say how he would campaign.

Despite backing Labour his whole life, Ferris says he will not be voting next month.

"I can't vote for Jeremy Corbyn. He's an absolute clown. And on Brexit, he's totally neutral," he said.

"This constituency voted Leave — why aren't they doing it? Our votes don't count."

 

'Get us out' 

 

Johnson was forced to delay Brexit for three months from October 31 after failing to get his exit terms through parliament, but is now campaigning on a promise to "Get Brexit Done".

For some Leavers in Workington, it resonates.

"The Conservatives, they're the only ones that's promising to get us out," said Bron Stringer, 43, who runs a market stall.

She is normally a Labour voter, but condemned Corbyn as a "communist".

A poll by Survation for the Daily Mail last weekend suggested the Conservatives are on course to win in Workington, with 45 per cent support, compared to 34 per cent for Labour.

Labour's Sue Hayman, a member of Corbyn's top team, won the seat for a second time in 2017 with 51 per cent of the vote, an increased majority of 4,000.

Her supporters insist she can keep the seat.

"I'm not Workington Woman!" said Market Trader Charlotte Byers, 50.

"It's not all about Brexit, it's also about the National Health Service," she said, pointing to Labour's record of funding public services.

Ann Douglas, 70, a retired secretary, added: "We lost our steelworks, we lost our ports. The Conservatives have done this area no favours."

 

Enter Farage 

 

Workington lies between the Lake District national park and the Irish Sea, and it feels like a long way from Westminster.

"We're out here on a limb, nobody gives a stuff about us," said Stringer.

The 2016 Brexit campaign tapped into a similar sense of disillusionment in communities across Britain — and populist eurosceptic leader Nigel Farage is hoping he can do it again.

Farage made Workington one of the first campaign stops for his new Brexit Party.

His former party, UKIP, won 20 per cent of the vote here in the 2015 election, only to slump to less than 4 per cent two years later.

The UKIP candidate from 2015, Mark Jenkinson, is now the Conservative candidate and has made delivering Brexit his main pitch.

Addressing a meeting at a local hotel, Farage argued that Johnson's withdrawal deal with the EU would deliver "Brexit in name only".

He dismissed as "patronising cobblers" the idea of Workington Man, the successor to Mondeo Man, the stereotypical Ford owner targeted by former Labour leader Tony Blair.

And he made clear where his target was.

"If you're a Leave voter you cannot vote Labour in this election, because it's clear they will betray your vote," he said.

 

By Alice Ritchie

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