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  1. ITV Report

According to a Tory think tank, he holds the key to this election, but who is Workington Man?

  • Video report by ITV News Reporter Damon Green

Before MPs voted for a Christmas election on Tuesday evening, Workington, a Cumbrian coastal town with a population of just over 25,000, was quietly minding its own business.

But overnight, this unassuming town has become the centre of a media frenzy and the focal point of this snap election after a Tory think tank identified 'Workington Man' as the party's great hope in securing Boris Johnson the keys to No.10 for the next five years.

The town now faces a Westminster invasion of reporters eager to understand the Workington Man. The men of the town won't be able to step out of their front door between now and December 12 for fear of a journalist with a microphone accosting him at a market stall or enjoying a pint down the local, demanding his views on his status as a crucial cog in this latest election.

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This former coal mining community's new found status as an election nucleus is not entirely (some would say, not at all) welcome. As one Twitter user asked: "Who's going to explain what a jam-eater is to all these posh lobby journalists?"

Another wrote: "Woke up and for some reason Wukky is getting the most attention than since the bridge tragedy - not even Uppies and Downies can get this much attention time for the news people to learn what #Marra means, marra!"

A plaque recognising Workington's industrial past. Credit: ITV News

Why Workington?

Because right-of-centre think tank Onward identified "Workington man" as representative of the type of voters the Tories need to target to ensure a majority: white, non-graduate rugby league fans from traditionally Labour-voting, Leave-backing northern England towns.

We could have had Wigan Man or Halifax Man, but it was the men of Workington who fitted the average "middle England vote" bill best. Their prize? London's media descending on the place and picking apart what it means to be a man living in Workington in 2019.

Rugby League at Derwent Park, Workington.

What is it about these men that make them such a target?

James O'Shaughnessy, a Conservative peer and former Downing Street director of policy, explains: "For the Conservatives to win a majority at the upcoming general election requires a leap of faith by people who have never voted Tory before.

"These voters are not nostalgic; they don't believe there was a golden age we need to return to. They're looking for change, but change that delivers greater security in their lives, not more exposure to the harsh winds of globalisation."

Since the Workington constituency was created in 1918, the Conservatives have never won the seat in a general election, although Tory MP Richard Page held the seat for three years following the 1976 by-election - the only non-Labour MP to ever do so.

After the loss of the coal and steel industries on which Workington was built, the town became an unemployment blackspot. Credit: ITV News

What do we know about Workington?

  • Workington, which lies a little over 30 miles from Carlisle, was built on coal and steel and the decline of both industries hit the town and neighbouring areas hard.
  • The town now houses the British Cattle Movement Service, a government agency set up to oversee the British beef and dairy industry following the BSE crisis in Britain.
  • The nearby nuclear plant of Sellafield is now one of the largest employers in the area.
  • Severe flooding in 2009 swept away three bridges, killing PC Bill Barker and cutting the town in half for over a month before a temporary bridge was built.
  • The current MP is Labour Sue Hayman. She increased Labour's majority by 111 in 2010 to 4,686 to become the first female MP to represent a constituency in Cumbria.
  • Until it was reduced to a voter stereotype, Workington was most famous for being the home of Uppies and Downies, a type of medieval football that looks like a cross between rugby league and a pub brawl. It uses a heavy leather ball and a lot of pushing - not unlike the average day at Westminster - and working out who is winning during a match is as difficult as predicting this election.
The temporary bridge in Workington following floods in 2009 that destroyed three bridges. Credit: PA

What do the people of Workington think?

Despite MP Sue Hayman increasing Labour's majority in 2017 by 111 votes to a majority of over 4,000, a victory for Corbyn's party in this election is far from guaranteed.

ITV News spoke to Ian McClure who is the kind of voter Labour used to be able to rely upon. But the present day Workington is a very different place to the town it once was and the traditional Labour voter has gone along with the industry.

"When I left school, you left school and went straight into a job and it was the steel works, or down the pit," he says.

"Everywhere around here, there's derelict buildings and shops shutting and factories closing. All that industries gone. And all we have now is that plaque there that tells us about how good we were."

Workington Woman, Sharon, is no fan of Jeremy Corbyn. Credit: ITV News

And it is not just the Workington man who is disillusioned with Labour. Sharon Jones, who runs the local tea caravan, told ITV News that Jeremy Corbyn would "ruin the country".

But others in Workington remain more conflicted, torn between their traditional political views and the modern day scenario being played out in Westminster.

Former miner and life-long Labour voter, Raymond - known as 'Snapper' to his friends - told ITV News he will not be voting for either of the two main parties in December - despite admitting to liking Boris Johnson.

Former Labour voter 'Snapper' does not know who he will be voting for. Credit: ITV News

Workington Man is the latest in a long line of voter stereotypes. What other boxes have politicians reduced us to over the years?

  • Essex Man

Margaret Thatcher may not have started the tradition of drawing up voter stereotypes, but she took it to new heights with "Essex man" during the 1980s. The Essex man was a working-class Labour voter who switched allegiance to the Tories, helping to secure the Iron Lady three successive election wins.

Drove a Mondeo? Labour were targeting your vote in 1997. Credit: PA
  • Mondeo Man

Coined by then-Labour leader Tony Blair in 1996 after he recalled canvassing with a voter who owned a Ford Sierra - a car that was later superseded by the Ford Mondeo (presumably because political campaign masterminds love a little bit of alliteration).

  • Worcester woman

A prime Labour target during their 1997 general election campaign, Worcester Woman was a working-class mother who traditionally voted Conservative but would consider voting Labour if she believed the party would improve her family's life.

Worcester had its moment in the election spotlight in 1997. Credit: PA
  • Pebbledash people

In 2001, the Conservatives singled out middle-aged professional couples who live in semi-detached, often pebble-dashed homes in the suburbs and thought it would be an election winning tactic to call them 'Pebbledash People'.

Tom and Barbara's house in The Good Life - would they have voted Tory in 2001? Credit: PA
  • Bacardi Breezer generation

In 2003, former cabinet minister Stephen Byers urged Labour to reach out to rum-swigging 18 to 25-year-olds that they described as "alienated".

  • Holby City Woman

Used during the 2010 election by the Tories, Holby City Woman was not someone who spent their Saturday nights glued to BBC hospital dramas, but in fact a female voter in her 30s or 40s who works in the public sector, cares about social issues and leans towards Labour.

Public sector workers were targeted in the 2010 elections as swing voters. Credit: PA
  • Motorway man

A phrase coined by Jim Pickard in the Financial Times during the 2010 election, "Motorway men" are floating voters who, political strategists believe, hold the outcome of an election in their hands - or perhaps that should be, at the wheel. He lives in a modern house with easy access to a motorway.

Motorway man: are these voter stereotypes a road to nowhere? Credit: PA
  • Are these demographic stereotypes useful?

But just how useful are these think tank creations? Do these headline-friendly stereotypes have an impact, or are they simply a distraction for media to focus on?

“Concepts like 'Workington man' are an attempt to personalise what might otherwise be rather dry demographic categories. They are a useful way of trying to highlight groups which parties think might be significant in an election, and pollsters will often be asked what their findings can tell us about how 'he' might behave," ITV News Election Analyst Colin Rallings explains.

“But like all stereotypes they run the risk of either being too broad - is every Labour Leave voter over 45 in the north of England now a 'Workington man'? or too narrow.

Engineers survey the scene after a bridge over the River Derwent collapsed suddenly after heavy rainfall and flooding in Workington in 2009. Credit: AP

"With all due respect to Workington, it is a town at the end of the line in Cumbria and it is likely that many of those who are purported to fall into this category will never have heard it or know where it is.

“As such, although it is true that the Conservatives do need to target that demographic and indeed seats like Workington if they are to win an overall majority, this particular meme may have even less traction than the similar shorthand focus on 'Essex man', 'Mondeo man', or 'Worcester woman' used at previous elections.”

Worthington's role in the 2019 General Election may not be as crucial as the Tories hope, but its place on the divided map of Britain is now guaranteed.