Polling experts in the UK say they’ve identified the voter group that will make the difference in the elections on May 6 and they’re calling him ‘Motorway Man.’
He lives and works near Britain’s highways. So we travelled down the M1 motorway, the so-called ‘backbone of Britain,’ to find him.
When drawing up election strategy, the three main parties consulted a national database called Mosaic, which contains information on the public’s personal finances, lifestyle preferences and voting intentions.
Mosaic helped Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats find out where to focus their door-to-door canvassing and what particular message they need to get across in that area.
Bruno Rost is one of the men behind Mosaic at the Nottingham-based data company Experian. He met us at Donington services, junction 23a to tell us about these ‘Motorway Men.’
“They represent about 11.6 percent of all households and that equates to about 15 percent of the electorate. They are typically living in homes built in the last five years on Brownfield sites on the periphery of small provincial towns and cities with easy access to the motorway networks,” he says.
On the drive down to meet Bruno, we had noticed plenty of examples of these new housing estates; fledgling communities of up-and-coming young professionals.
In such places, Motorway Men and Women live amid larger, family houses; homes they may aspire to live in themselves a few years down the line.
Bruno continued to paint a picture of the kind of guy Motorway Man is:
“The other interesting thing about Motorway Men is that they are very materialistic. They are young, childless couples, not necessarily attached to the communities in which they are living. They’re very career minded; money is very important to this group. Getting a step up the career ladder is absolutely essential to this group. They’ve got houses full of all the latest Blue-Ray and HD, and new cars in the drive. It’s very much a ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ mentality.”
But these are hard times for Motorway Men and Women. Credit is harder to come by and their homes have lost value during the recession. Their jobs are not as safe and those material goods are now not quite so affordable.
We loitered outside the service station, looking for young commuters who seemed to fit the profile to ask them about their biggest election complaints.
One woman told us: “The state of the roads, they’re disgraceful. We pay so much in petrol tax and I think that’s one of my ‘biggies.’ I think it’s disgraceful how much we pay in tax.”
Another said: “Fuel costs. I mean I probably drive 1,000 miles every three weeks with my job so it’s really fuel and stuff like that.”
A likely male Motorway Person thought it was the economy: “You know, we’re in so much debt, it’s quite concerning really for the future. I’m 27 looking to the future for me, how long are we going to paying this debt off for?”
Motorway Man has been hit where it hurts him most: in the pocket. And his winter of discontent was made worse when the freak cold snap broke up the tarmac on the roads he spends so much time driving down.
We were told of a town called Chellaston, just off junction 24, in Britain’s former industrial heartland. Here, Motorway Man has settled in large numbers.
Arriving there, we found an immense labyrinth of new-build houses and flats.
Around 1,000 new homes have been built in Chellaston in the last 10 years. Motorway Man and his neighbour with the bigger house, wife and kids have turned what was a village into a suburb of the city of Derby.
The new-build estate has its own pub, the Bonnie Prince, which on its website boasts good quality food and “a stylish, contemporary look.” No live football here, only subtitled 24-hour news channels with the sound off. This was a family pub.
Down the road in the old village, at the much noisier Rose and Crown, we spoke to lifelong residents of Chellaston.
We wanted to know how they felt their community had changed with the new estate and their new neighbours.
Helen, a health worker in her late 20s said: “It’s just changed the way the village is. There are more people; more children in the schools. My sister lives in a village up the road and her child is in a class of 10 or 15. Children here are in a class of possibly 30.”
A pair of middle-aged Chellastonians described how the new estate was developing its own amenities. One said:
“They’re building shops down there now, hairdressers down there. So they are building a little community down on that estate. Which won’t affect the village.”
Two years ago the local council seat in Chellaston passed from left to right, from Labour to Conservative control and we wondered how the dramatic demographic change had influenced the political lanscape.
But according to Bruno, when it comes to politics Motorway Man changes allegiance almost as often as he changes his motor.
“We’ve seen that Motorway Man in 2005 was very much a Labour voter. earlier than that in 1997, the equivalent group would have voted for Blair. Now we’re seeing a big shift towards the Conservatives.
“They’re very driven by personality politics. They are the X-Factor generation. So in that sense they are attracted to the next new thing. That was Blair in ’97, this time it’s more likely to be Cameron than it is to be Brown,” he said.
We wanted to put that theory to the test in Milton Keynes, where Labour and the Conservatives are locked in a close election contest.
We went to find Motorway Man in the offices that line the town’s wide, US-style boulevards, to ask him his assessment of 13 years of Labour government.
It wasn’t long before we found one who confirmed Mosaic’s prognosis.
“Promising initially. I voted for them then and that was the first time I’d voted for them. Since then it seems to have got worse and worse and it’s no better than the previous governments that have been in. In the last five years, with an unelected Prime Minister, it’s been pretty much a disaster as far as I’m concerned,” said a disgruntled sales representative.
We asked his colleague about personality politics and he told us it didn’t matter. Well, maybe a little actually:
“I feel I have to engage with someone before I vote for them. I’ll be interested to watch the prime ministerial debates to see how they perform there. That may play a big part. I’d like to think I’ll vote mainly on policy but personality will certainly come into it.”
Ah yes, the leaders’ debate. The first of its kind in British election history. Live on TV and radio, it brings politics to the so-called ‘X-Factor generation.’
We left the M1 at Hemel Hempstead where the Conservatives have a majority of less than 200 out of nearly 50,000 votes.
If Motorway Man is partial to personality, these debates are crucial.
We joined self-confessed Motorway Man Nick Fifield in his home to scrutinise the performance of Gordon Brown, David Cameron and the relatively unknown Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.
Did he know any more about the three individuals than he did before the debate?
“I don’t think so, no. I don’t think I’ve learnt anything more. I think where the country will have learned a lot more is about Nick Clegg. Alot of people who don’t keep up with politics day-to-day wouldn’t have necessarily known who he was. So he certainly will have gained from that more than anyone. But from a personal stand-point I think I still view them very much in the same way.”
Nick Clegg’s debate success was the first big twist in the election tale. The Lib Dems’ poll ratings soared on the back of the first debate, providing the country with a rare genuine three horse race.
But who will Motorway Man trust to put the cash back in his pocket and get the economy up and running again?