Workington Man turned Tory in 2019 but slipped back to Labour in UK local elections

When a Conservative-supporting thinktank tried to analyse the forthcoming 2019 general election, it dreamed up an archetypal swing voter who it said would be key to a Tory victory.

Winning over the “Workington Man” – a leave-voting, rugby league-loving, white, working-class, jaded Labour supporter aged over 45 – would be crucial, it said.

The stereotype was received by many in the former mining town in Cumbria as crude and insulting. But the underlying premise – that long-time Labour voters were inching towards the Tories – carried some truth. In the 2019 election, the “red wall” of Labour heartlands crumbled as voters turned their backs on Jeremy Corbyn. In Workington, the Tory Mark Jenkinson was elected MP.

Last week, however, there were signs that the tide could be turning. In the local elections, Labour won a large majority, taking 30 out of 46 seats on the new Cumberland council, which will cover Copeland, Carlisle and Allerdale (including Workington), compared with the Tories’ seven. In a triumphant 5.30am Facebook post, local Labour councillors announced the news. “The Workington Man has voted Labour,” they said.

For Bronwen Stringer, 45, Workington Man is an idea dreamed up by the London elite. “I don’t know where they got it from,” she says. “They don’t give a monkey’s chuff about us.” But, she says, she shares some of the traits associated with the fictional swing voter. “I’m a Workington woman. I’m one of the ones that’s on the fence.”

Woman sits on edge of her market stall, collection of boxes behind her, wearing zip-up jacket with picture of husky dog
Bronwen Stringer runs a market stall and doesn’t care for political stereotypes. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

A market-stall holder with three children, Stringer has previously voted Labour and supports the party’s local politicians, but backed Boris Johnson in the 2019 election because she “didn’t like Corbyn as a person”.

She’s yet to make her mind up about how she’ll vote in the general election, but is edging back towards Labour. “I quite like the leader they’ve got now. Is it Keir Starmer?” she says. “He seems a bit more transparent than the Borises of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I like Boris as a person and I could imagine having a good crack with him. It’s just this Partygate thing… My kids’ grandma passed away on her own. That’s what sticks with me.”

A former motorbike shop owner, Rob Fisher, 61, also voted for Johnson in 2019 because he supported Brexit and thought Tory policies “suited our needs” as business owners.

Since then, his support has waned. He didn’t turn out for the local elections and isn’t sure he’ll vote next time, either. “I’ve always voted but this time I just thought, ‘No’,” he said. “They’re all a load of lying idiots. Everything they’ve said they were going to do they haven’t done, and everything they said they wouldn’t do, they did.”

Another Workington resident also voted for Johnson in 2019. “I’ve always been Labour but I did vote Conservative at the last general election. I thought Boris would be a better leader,” the retired electrician, 86, said. Last week, he voted for Labour after a B-road by his house was turned into an A-road, increasing traffic noise.

“Labour are the only ones who mentioned it,” he said. But while he knows he wouldn’t vote for Johnson again, his support for Labour doesn’t extend to the national leadership. “Boris won’t get my vote. I couldn’t trust him now with anything. But I don’t think I’d vote for Labour either,” he said.

Labour’s Andy Semple, who won a seat on Cumberland council, puts his victory down to old-fashioned campaigning, rather than the party’s national leadership. “It’s boots on the ground and leaflets through the door. It’s not rocket science,” he said.

Brexit, he said, was “the only big reason that Workington went Conservative” in 2019. But this time around, “it just wasn’t mentioned”, with doorstep conversations instead dominated by concerns about food, fuel and the costs of living.

The relative invisibility of the national leader also helped. While Corbyn turned voters off, Starmer hardly came up. “I’m a Keir Starmer fan; I voted for him. But to me, a national leader in the local elections should be the silent leader, a quiet leader. If he’s dominating the agenda they’re not voting for you as the local candidate,” he said.

Man standing in street wearing dark jacket. Background is in soft focus
Rob Fisher voted for Boris Johnson in 2019 but didn’t turn out this time. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

His win in the former Tory stronghold of Cockermouth South – which he likens to a “Workington Wandsworth” – suggests Labour’s result was not just down to old supporters returning to their roots, but also long-time Tory voters switching allegiance. “It’s the start of a new dawn,” he said. “We’re starting to win people’s trust.”

Elizabeth Mallinson, a Tory councillor who lost the Stanwix Urban seat in Cumberland to the Lib Dem candidate, with 559 votes to 1,472, wishes she had the benefit of a silent leader. She blames her loss on Johnson. “People were absolutely livid. The answer on the doorstep for me was, ‘It’s toxic in London. We’ve got rules and regulations and we’ve all obeyed them and they should obey them’,” she said. “I’m rather cross that London has pulled the rug from under local politicians.”

While the results were “really disappointing” for the Tories, she doesn’t believe that nationally, Labour has it in the bag. “This is a wake-up call for the government, and also for the Labour party. They’re not all sitting in a bed of roses because we’ve got Greens and Liberal Democrats.” The Lib Dems took four seats on the new Cumberland council, the Greens two and independents three. But in Westmorland and Furness, the neighbouring Cumbria council, the Lib Dems won 36 of the 65 seats to seize overall control.

Will Tanner, director of Onward – the right-leaning thinktank that invented “Workington Man” – said it was too early to judge the significance of Labour’s local election success. He described the results as “underwhelming at best” for the Conservatives. But he said he suspected Labour’s success in Cumberland was down to local issues – “everything from bin collections to antisocial behaviour”, rather than national factors.

“You do see the broad continuation of the trend that Workington Man was the archetype for,” he said. “But Workington itself seems to have been slightly anomalous.”

“If you look at other results around the country, you’ll see the effect that Workington Man represented – ie the shift of northern and Midlands voters towards the Conservatives – continuing in other ways. Workington Man was not just about Workington. It was also about Newcastle-under-Lyme, it was also about Walsall, Nuneaton, Wakefield and Wigan.”