The people who will decide the next general election

As speculation mounts over when Britain will go to the polls, we look at the types of voters Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak need to win over

Election strategists cannot resist constructing an archetype that their party needs to win over. For Tony Blair it was Mondeo Man, for Boris Johnson it was Waitrose Woman, David Cameron had Worcester Woman and Margaret Thatcher had Essex Man.

In reality, of course, there are multiple demographic groups that make up target voters for each party, and as speculation mounts of an election as soon as May next year, they are busily gathering data to define them. 

The Tories have Isaac Levido, the campaign manager credited with masterminding the 2019 landslide, coming back full-time in the party’s headquarters, it was announced this week.

The Telegraph, though, has already done the hard work for them, by teaming up with pollsters and strategic consultants JL Partners to identify the voters that will decide whether Rishi Sunak or Sir Keir Starmer leads Britain into the second half of the decade.

The research shows that Starmer can bank on around 14.7 million hardcore Labour voters, compared with just 8.3 million rock solid Tory voters, but he could still lose the election if those solid Labour votes pile up in safe seats rather than in marginals.

That’s why both sides will be fighting so hard to win over the four categories of undecided voters identified here. If Sunak could win all of them over, which this month’s Cabinet reshuffle and Autumn Statement tax cut were designed to help achieve, he would have 17.5 million votes.

Altogether, the six groups detailed here account for 32.2 million voters, which would represent a typical general election turnout from an electorate of 46.5 million.

For the Conservatives and Labour, the most important factors are the political issues that matter most to each archetype, and the constituency that they live in. 

By making a cold calculation of how many votes they can scoop up by tailoring individual policies to voters’ concerns, they can fine-tune their manifestos and campaign strategies.

And by cross-referencing those voter concerns with geographical areas, they can decide where to concentrate resources by identifying constituencies that will become swing seats in 2024 and deprioritising safe seats or lost causes.

In its research, JL Partners has also built up a fascinating picture of not only where voters live and what they care about, but also who they are: where they shop, what they watch on TV, what kind of car they drive (or not), where they go on holiday, how much they earn and what kind of home they live in.

James Johnson, co-founder of JL Partners, says: “Come 2024, both parties will be aiming to win Middle England. But at this election, Middle England has a few different faces. 

“If you are Rishi Sunak, you are after those who voted Conservative in 2019 who now either say they do not know how they would vote or that they are opting for Reform UK. This group has very socially conservative values and doesn’t have much time for Labour. If the Tories win them back, then suddenly Labour’s lead is significantly reduced and the election looks a lot closer.”

If Sunak proves that he can walk the walk as well as talk the talk on immigration, he could secure up to 1.9 million votes among people for whom immigration is top of their list of election issues.

They are people who voted Leave, two-thirds of them are over 55 and almost eight in 10 are homeowners, with the majority having already paid off their mortgage.

Despite being more asset-rich than the population as a whole, they often struggle to pay their bills, with four in 10 living on an income of £25,000 or less, making this group slightly less affluent than average.

Many of them live in former Red Wall seats where they lent their vote to Boris Johnson in 2019 to “Get Brexit Done”, but are now wavering or considering not voting at all.

Because this group ranks immigration so highly, some are talking about switching to Reform UK, the re-badged Brexit Party now led by Richard Tice after Nigel Farage stepped down in 2021.

For Sunak, the difference between winning and losing marginal seats could well be determined by whether the Right-wing vote is split between the Tories and Reform in seats like Blyth Valley, which switched from Labour to the Tories in 2019 with a majority of just 712

The Brexit Party polled more than 3,000 votes and came third that year; if its successor could persuade just 2 per cent of Tory voters to switch to Reform it would be enough, based on the 2019 result, to allow Labour through the middle.

The task for Sunak if he wants to win over these voters is clear: get migrant-processing flights to Rwanda off the ground before the next election, and, if necessary, make a manifesto pledge to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. The emergency legislation he announced to keep the Rwanda plan alive after the Supreme Court ruled it illegal is now all the more important if he wants to count on this group’s support.

Like Stop the Boats Steve, Retiring Rita is a 2019 Conservative voter who has become disenchanted with the Tories and currently does not know how or whether she will vote.

For her, the NHS and the cost of living are priorities, and the way of winning her over is less straightforward than simply cracking down on immigration.

This group is far more diverse than the Stop the Boats archetype, with 41 per cent working full-time, 33 per cent retired and an even distribution between working class and middle class. Despite its name, the female/male split is 57 per cent to 43 per cent.

Although 60 per cent of them live in rural constituencies, 42 per cent live in London or within commuting distance of London. 

Three-quarters of this group own their own homes, of whom more than four in 10 have paid off their mortgage, and car ownership is higher than in the population at large.

If Sunak is to win back these voters, he will have to restore the feelgood factor on the economy, which he hopes to do by bringing inflation down further. This would allow the Bank of England to consider cutting interest rates in the medium term and increase consumer confidence.

Inflation has had such a profound effect on the cost of living that people will still be paying higher prices in 2024 than they were in 2022, even if inflation does continue to fall, but optimism plays such a huge part in voters’ economic outlook that simply showing that the worst is over might be enough to restore the Tories’ reputation for competence.

Showing real progress on the NHS will be a tougher nut to crack, with waiting lists predicted to rise to 8 million in the coming months, rather than falling as Sunak promised they would do. This is the task given to new Health Secretary Victoria Atkins. 

Toyota Tony is the definitive swing voter at the next election. He drove his sensible, reliable and affordable Japanese car to the polling station in 2019 and voted Tory because he liked the look of Boris Johnson, but he now feels let down and is intending to vote Labour or Lib Dem.

His biggest concern is the economy and the cost of living, as he is a middle-class working man with a mortgage to pay off, and he blames the Conservatives, and in particular Liz Truss, for the mess that the economy is now in.

There will be a three-way fight over the 2.2 million voters who fall into this category, as they are mulling over a vote for Labour or the Lib Dems, while the Tories will still hope they can win some of them back if Sunak and his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt can turn the economy around.

The bad news for Sunak is that Labour leads in the opinion polls on the economy, the cost of living and the NHS – another key concern for this group. Number 10 might well have had this group in mind with its centrist reshuffle last week.

Expect all three parties to target these voters in constituencies like High Peak in Derbyshire, which has changed hands three times in the past 18 years and is currently held by the Tories with a majority of just 590.

Until 2010, the Lib Dems were pulling in more than 20 per cent of the vote in High Peak: their vote share plunged after they went into coalition with the Conservatives, but they will hope that they can continue recent strong showings in by-elections and pick up votes from disaffected Tories who cannot bring themselves to vote Labour.

Losing this group would hit Sunak particularly hard: with a quarter of them earning £50,000 to £70,000 and a tenth earning £100,000 or more, this should be solid Conservative territory.

Just as Sunak risks losing millions of 2019 voters in the form of Toyota Tony, so Starmer risks losing millions of 2019 Labour voters characterised by Remainer Ruth.

As things stand, this group of 3.2 million people – enough to tip the balance in Starmer’s favour on their own – are talking about voting Labour but their allegiance is soft.

Many of them preferred Jeremy Corbyn to Starmer or are first-time voters with Left-wing views who chanted for Corbyn at Glastonbury in 2017. 

The Israel-Hamas war has added a further complication to Starmer’s ability to keep these voters on board, as they are troubled by his stance on the conflict and his refusal to call for a ceasefire, and many will have attended pro-Palestine marches in recent weeks.

Their strong views on Gaza, coupled with their hatred of Brexit, make the Lib Dems an attractive alternative.

Ruth is typically a city-dwelling graduate who lives in a rented home, uses public transport and is under 35, and she is also considering voting Green or, if she lives outside England, SNP or Plaid Cymru.

Her biggest priority is the NHS, though the cost of living is also a concern and net zero is firmly on her radar.

Ruth likes to treat herself with groceries from Waitrose and enjoys city breaks in places like Copenhagen, where she will stay in an Airbnb apartment.

Starmer will need to hang on to this group if he wants to regain marginal seats like Kensington in west London, where Labour’s Emma Dent Coad lost her seat to Conservative Felicity Buchan in 2019 by just 150 votes. The Lib Dems and the Greens came third and fourth respectively, and a defection from Labour to either of these parties could be enough to ruin Labour’s chances.

The most solid block of Tory votes is personified by M&S Mike, a middle-aged, middle-class man who drives his BMW to Marks & Spencer to do his shopping.

Mike lives in the East or South East, in constituencies like Southend West (Tory majority 14,459), Beaconsfield (Tory majority 15,712) and Maldon (where tourism minister Sir John Whittingdale has a majority of 30,041).

But he also lives in places like Chesham and Amersham, where Tory MP Cheryl Gillan held a majority of 16,223 before her death in 2021, which was wiped out by the Lib Dems with a 25 per cent swing at the resulting by-election. 

If Sunak is to win back seats like Chesham and Amersham, which have been lost in by-elections since 2019, he will need M&S Mike and his friends to turn out to vote. The Lib Dems’ victory in 2021 was achieved with a turnout of just 52 per cent, compared with the 77 per cent who voted in 2019. Thousands of Tory voters appear to have stayed at home to register their disgruntlement (Labour came fourth with a pathetic 622 votes in the by-election, suggesting most of their supporters voted tactically to get the Lib Dems in), so if Sunak can tempt them back to the polling booths he stands a chance of stealing these seats back.

M&S Mike, like Stop the Boats Steve, places immigration at or near the top of his list of priorities for the next election, which emphasises why it is so important for Sunak to show a firm hand on the small boats crisis, and why he had, until recently, been keeping the tough-talking Suella Braverman in place as home secretary despite criticism from Tory centrists.

If M&S Mike and his friends stay at home on polling day, Sunak will be on the wrong end of an almighty Labour landslide.

JL Partners The biggest archetype of all is represented by NHS Nicky, and the good news for Starmer is that she is solidly Labour.

Nicky (though this group is almost evenly split between men and women) is typically in her early 40s or younger, works in the public sector and lives in the north of England or a Labour-supporting London borough. Like Remainer Ruth, her biggest concern is the NHS, which might also be her employer.

She uses public transport if she can, but drives a Toyota or a Kia to work if she does not live on a bus or train route. By shopping at discount store Lidl, she is able to put aside enough money for an annual holiday to a sunny destination like the Algarve, flying with Ryanair or on a Tui package deal.

NHS Nicky can be found living in constituencies like Liverpool Walton (Labour majority 30,520), Manchester Gorton (Labour majority 30,339) or Tottenham, where shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has a 30,175 majority.

JL Partners calculates that 14.7 million people fall into this group, providing Starmer with a launchpad for victory if he can win over just one of the four groups of floating voters.

James Johnson of JL Partners says there is one caveat, however, that might make the various groups meaningless.

He says: “Although it is unlikely, if Labour really does maintain a 15-plus percentage point lead through to election day, then these segments may well fall to one side. 

“When parties win big, they ride a wave of general positive feeling almost regardless of how the exact contours of the electorate look. In that scenario, a red wave will raise the tide pretty evenly.”

JL Partners is publishing this research to coincide with the launch of its new 20:24 offer, providing research and strategic advice on elections taking place globally next year – including Britain and the US – that will impact financial markets and policy decisions around the world