Probably won't vote Lib Dem. (Stuart Wilson-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

February 16, 2024   5 mins

This Valentine’s Day brought a very special treat for middle-aged women feeling unloved and invisible. If you’re between 40 and 60, belong to the National Trust, watch Countryfile, own a dog, and care about “doing things the proper British way”, then you’re now an object of unalloyed lust for at least two of the three main political parties. After being wooed by Boris Johnson in 2022 (and surviving), so-called “Waitrose Woman” is currently the subject of a renewed tug-of-love between Liberal Democrats and Tories.

Also in Ed Davey’s amorous sights, according to the same Telegraph report, are “M&S Movers”: youngish couples who have upped sticks from London to the Home Counties after the pandemic in the hope of starting families there. They worry about climate change and mortgage hikes, and “care deeply” about “Gary Lineker and his causes”. Normally this fantasy pair would vote Labour, but the Lib Dem leader apparently thinks he can lure them into a socially responsible throuple.

Whenever I read about fictitious voting personas — see also Waterstones Dad, Deano, Millennial Milly, and Workington Man — it is striking how they seem more like characters in a terrible play than resembling real people. On a stage set for a dinner party, Waterstones Dad is boring on about Simon Schama’s latest tome as Waitrose Woman politely nods and pretends to listen. Workington Man is surreptitiously checking his betting app while, outside, Millennial Milly is flirtily cadging fags off Deano. Indeed, the people who came up with Waitrose Woman and M&S Movers can’t even seem to make the supermarkets in question believable. For surely Waitrose is more often a place full of recycling obsessives wearing wacky spectacles and stripey jumpers; while M&S tends to attract the more sedate dowager-types.

Even so, political strategists still love the device of a fictitious persona: partly, I assume, because they wrongly think of themselves as too individual to ever be described generically. See: “Daniel is a pale-faced 30-something dressed in white shirt and Portcullis House lanyard, stalking about Westminster coffee cup in hand, worrying about his rent and listening to The Rest is Politics on his AirPods.”

Originally, personas were conceived by marketers as a means of designing more desirable products — first identifying a specific type of person, and then working out what sort of thing, exactly, that type of person might want. Soon the practice migrated to politics and characters such as “Dougie” were born: “a stereotypically hard-working, blue-collar white guy who loved hockey, beer, Tim Hortons coffee, and hanging out at the hardware store”.

Dougie was aimed at attracting like-minded souls to vote Conservative in the 2006 Canadian federal election. Single and in his 20s, he worked for Canadian Tire, and later went on to get a girlfriend called Denise. And as his creator put it: “He agreed with us on issues such as crime and welfare abuse, but he was more interested in hunting and fishing than politics and often didn’t bother to vote.”

These days, presumably Dougie is languishing in a Canadian jail for his role in the trucker convoy protests; but back in 2006 he was the Conservative’s main man. Over the course of that campaign, he appeared on PowerPoints and briefing sheets, posters and hockey cards. Policymakers were encouraged to look at an image of Dougie and ask themselves how he would feel about a particular idea; those in charge of communications would anticipate which messages he would most like to hear. When the Conservatives eventually got into minority government, they put “Team Dougie” on a T-shirt.

Yet despite its apparent success in this case, the practice of persona-construction still seems distinctly odd. On the face of it, even the use of them in product design seems counterintuitive: for why would you deliberately make the things that you want to sell appeal only to a very specific type of consumer? The standard answer here is that the use of the technique works best for what are assumed to be relatively niche markets in the first place; and, after all, most markets are like this. It’s theoretically true that catering for the whims of a very particular sort of person might dissuade lots of others from buying your wares, who don’t share those precise whims; but since in most cases your product was unlikely to appeal to the masses anyway, it doesn’t really matter.

With the political use of fictitious personas, however, the initial puzzlement becomes more insistent. For you would think that, by definition, there should be no particularly niche markets for the biggest political parties. Their aim should always be to give as many people as possible what they want, whether that’s because they want to attract the largest number of voters to their cause or because, more nobly but perhaps less plausibly, they think that this is how democracy ought to work. For the biggest parties, then, there seems to be a risk that, in putting time and energy into producing policies that specifically appeal to some particular caricature of a swing voter, they might accidentally ignore or even alienate lots of other potentials.

Or to put it another way: in going for Waitrose Woman, you are in danger of deterring Morrisons Man or Asda Aunty. Dougie seems to have worked well for a Canadian Conservative party that had arguably lost touch with a relatively large natural voter base at the time; but in the case of more marginal voting types, the value of using such devices is not so clear.

“In going for Waitrose Woman, you are in danger of deterring Morrisons Man or Asda Aunty…”

This scepticism would not seem to apply to parties like the Reform Party or George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain, though. Each of these is currently touting for voters in Rochdale with renewed urgency, now that the Labour by-election candidate has lost the future whip thanks to his endorsement of an antisemitic October 7 conspiracy theory. For these smaller outfits, mostly unheard-of on the doorstep, their aim is presumably to become much better known and liked among a relatively narrow band of rather similar voters, rather than to widen their appeal more broadly. Here, it would seem strategically reasonable — if not particularly palatable in terms of optics — to specifically target policies at, say, John the 70-year-old Northern homeowner furious about immigration; or careworker Malika, who has three kids and likes going to pro-Palestinian marches in her spare time.

The counterargument to scepticism about the use of personas for the larger parties is that nowadays each of us has increasingly less in common with others, so that there are relatively few general voter characteristics for a would-be unifying political party to draw upon. Multiple social cleavages — financial, educational, cultural, moral — are separating us into smaller and smaller voting blocs. In other words, though relatively many of us will end up voting for the same party, it will be for very different background reasons. As a result, Conservatives now include those advocating for state interference in family life and those allergic to it; those who support gender ideology in schools and those who want it banned; those who would rejoin the EU and those who would prefer to see it destroyed. Labour voters are no less stratified; and arguably Lib Dem supporters have always been a basket case — as also seems evident from some current members’ wildly illiberal approaches to free speech.

Still, noticing the existence of increased voter stratification is one thing; deliberately drawing the electorate’s attention to it, quite another. As well as potentially alienating others and intensifying social divisions, singling out one or two groups for special attention by coarsely personifying them into a clichéd caricature inevitably comes across to some as deeply patronising. And then there’s just the sheer desperate transactionality of the practice. Politicians being explicit about fashioning niche policies and messages simply in order to bribe small numbers of voters over to their side, with increased or maintained power as their ultimate object, is hardly the noble democratic ideal. In fact — given they sound like highly principled sorts — it’s exactly the sort of thing Waitrose Woman and M&S Movers might rightly despise.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.