Following on from Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman, the Observer today reported on the new group identified by YouGov as the key group that will swing the General Election – Motorway Man.
Essentially this group is youngish, childless singles or couples living in modern homes with small kitchens that suffer from negative equity, don’t feel tied to their community as they may not live there for long, comfortable with internet, text or email advertising and who travel to work in other places. In most respects, that’s people’s like me. The main exception is that I live in a city centre not a commuter settlement and I don’t own my own home (although I suspect my landlord does suffer from negative equity). Oh, and of course that I’m not about to vote Tory, which this poll suggests most of Motorway Man are. One of the key things with this community though is that they tend to be free and easy with their political affiliations and not bound by family background or even how they’ve voted before. This presents a different challenge to political parties from what they’re used to.
About ten years ago I wrote an article for Conference Gazette, a publication that stopped being produced when it became too controversial, but used to be available daily for free at Lib Dem Conference. Although probably badly written, the gist of my article was that there was a whole generation, (which I styled Thatcher’s Children), who didn’t relate to geographical communities and were instead united by communities of interests that stretched across the country and was shared with friends, work colleagues, membership of groups etc. no matter where in the UK they lived. These people I argued could not be satisfactorily targeted by local campaigning, but instead had to be targeted by national campaigns based on their individual concerns. To me, the rise of Motorway Man as a key swing group is not too far removed from this group of Thatcher’s Children that I once wrote about.
To some extent this group should be easier for the Lib Dems to target. After all, they are of a generation where voting Lib Dem is not such a strange thing to do, and because they are more ‘footloose’ with their political affiliations they won’t decide on how to vote based on what their parents do – a generation during which the Liberals tended to have MPs in single figures. Also, their views will tend to be more liberal even if not Liberal. But there are unfortunately many reasons for Lib Dems to also be more fearful about this group.
The article in today’s Observer identifies some marginal constituencies that have a large number of these people described as Motorway Man. One if these is Eastleigh, where Chris Huhne is the Lib Dem MP. As soon as I read the article one particular ward in Eastleigh came to mind. An area that was notorious to Lib Dem activists in Eastleigh as the ward where everyone was always out. Although regular leaflets went out, it was difficult to engage with the residents there when they were never in when you knocked on their door. If people are never in and don’t spend their time in the area, they are far less likely to be engaged with community politics. Something which has tended to be one of the Liberal Democrats’ USPs and which is both a core party principle and a key campaign technique.
I have already extended Motorway Man to city centre dwellers, and the previous point applies as much to them as commuter settlements. In fact it will apply even more to them, as city centres are increasingly full of apartment blocks that are impossible to access unless you are a resident, which means they don’t even get leaflets. This reinforces another issue for Lib Dems, which is that Lib Dems only win when they have successfully convinced people that the national Conservative – Labour duopoly doesn’t apply in their area. With the national media largely ignoring the Lib Dems, the only way people know that the party is in with a shout in their area, is if they are bombarded with Lib Dem leaflets and see party activists on the doorstep. If Motorway Man is never at home and doesn’t engage with the community it makes that more difficult.
One area though that makes this group difficult for all parties is the rise of the internet. I’ve heard lots of people tell me that the internet will replace traditional campaigning, and with people more environmentally aware they won’t appreciate getting lots of leaflets. But the trouble with the internet is that it is largely an opt-in medium. If you can’t reach someone on the doorstep, they don’t give you their email address, or for that matter their mobile number as many people in these households only have mobile numbers, then you can’t contact them. This means you have to rely on them being sufficiently interested to contact you – not easy when people are so cynical about politics, don’t feel they need politicians in any way and when they don’t realise your party can win in their area.
Whether Motorway Man does end up being the key swing group in the General Election, we still don’t know. It may also be the case that Motorway Man turns out to not be the key for Lib Dem success, but only of importance in Conservative/Labour marginals. After all, Motorway Man is a new group that has emerged thanks to huge demographic change that has also resulted in places that were once traditional Labour manufacturing areas, such as Wakefield, suddenly being winnable for the Conservatives as a result of the constructions of all these new commuter estates that are full of people who could be described as Motorway Man. What we don’t know if is if the key swing group in Liberal Democrat marginals is the same. For example, my gut feeling, (without any real evidence, except looking at the sorts of seats we are now winning and from looking at the seats I’ve worked in), is that the swing groups recently for Lib Dems have been what I would generally consider to be educated middle-class people with a social conscience, the sorts that tend to live around universities. The others are probably Muslim voters, who have tended to move towards the Lib Dems since the Iraq war and have largely stuck with the party. As the Liberal Democrats expand there will be other key groups too, but if the party really wants to become a major party of government, perhaps it is worrying that Motorway Man is one group that is immune to the parties charms, and yet could decide the next government.