Way beyond Workington Man

November 4, 2019

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By Lauren Pennycook, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

In the 1990s, it was Essex Man. In 2003, it was Worcester Woman. And now, over decade later, it’s Workington Man – a short-hand soundbite which sums up a key voter demographic. The message is clear – to win over Workington Man is to win the upcoming election. But are these stereotypes right, fair and representative? Do they, in fact, tell us about places across the UK and the people who live there? Or do they compound the age-old divide of city slicker, town mouse and rural dweller?

The top-down generalisation of our places for the purpose of polling is nothing new. For decades, our towns, cities and rural areas have been broad-brushed as heartlands, strongholds, swing seats, and home countries. But how far does their conceptualisation for the purpose of politics translate into public policy?

International evidence tells us that having a clear story is an important part of flourishing towns. A narrative which acknowledges the past, builds on the present, and looks to the future. A narrative about what a place was, is, and aspires to be. An identity which is more far-reaching, more nuanced, and more day-to-day than the results it produces on Election Day.

It is this failure to understand places – and towns in particular – which has led governments across the UK to roll out policies in a way that is place-blind. We receive standard policies solutions, from housing to high street regeneration to heritage, in upland, lowland and coastal communities in the same sweeping way that the map of the UK is coded blue, red, yellow or orange during the polls. But places are far more unique than a static set of policies and political persuasions. Towns have distinct histories, assets, culture and art which mean that one UK-wide policy is no more relevant to the place than one box on a ballot paper is to all of its citizens.

So maybe, just maybe, instead of being a reflection of political beliefs, Workington Man is a reflection of his town – proud of his heavy industry heritage but also keen to maximise the opportunity presented by the Sea to Sea Cycle Route. Maybe he speaks proudly of local philanthropist Helen Thompson or speaks passionately of the need to improve transport links or flooding defences in the town. Or perhaps he has aspirations for his town to be a Fairtrade Town or a Living Wage Place.

It is the responsibility of policymakers to go beyond the soundbites to discover the collective experiences and aspirations of people in our towns across the UK. It is their collective voices, not their votes, that will tell us who they are, and what they need from governments to improve their wellbeing. It is what unites, rather than divides, them that policymakers must identify, understand, and use to inform local solutions. It is the only way that Essex Man, Worcester Woman and Workington Man cease to become political battlegrounds and instead become the groundings of policies which affect real change.