Among the gift shops and Goth daytrippers – meet the ‘Whitby woman’ who could sway the election

Among the gift shops and Goth daytrippers – meet the ‘Whitby woman’ who could sway the election

Pensioners whizz around on mobility scooters, pirate-themed boats sail by, couples clutch each other’s hands. Welcome to Whitby: the seaside town in North Yorkshire that has lent its name to a target voter in the general election race.

The so-called “Whitby woman”, a term coined by polling think-tank More in Common, is a Tory voter who remains undecided about who will get her vote on 4 July.

With an average age of around 61, she is a homeowner who lives in a suburb or a small town like Whitby, who voted in favour of Brexit and is less likely to have gone to university.

And her actions are expected by some to have an impact on whether the Tories suffer a landslide defeat, fall to a narrow defeat, or cling onto power.

Bar her age, Sadie Myers, who has an antique shop in Whitby called Den of Antiquity, perfectly fits the profile of the “Whitby woman”.

“It’s like opening a box of chocolates that look different but all taste the same,” the 49-year-old says of the political leaders. “You get bored.”

Ms Myers is not a fan of Rishi Sunak or Sir Keir Starmer so is thinking of leaning towards Nigel Farage’s Reform.

"I take pride in the fact that I always vote," she says. "I think it's very important, especially for women. We earned the right to vote and we need to hold onto that, you know. When you are not given people that you can warm to, it makes it very difficult."

Surrounded by figurines of Betty Boop and the Buddha, it is clear Ms Myers, who was born into the antiques and jewellery industry, has an encyclopaediac knowledge of the many miscellaneous items she peddles.

Meanwhile, as a 61-year-old lifelong Tory who voted for Brexit, Liz Richards closely aligns with the Whitby woman.

Despite voting for the Tories her whole life, she is adamant they will not be getting her vote this time.

“The main reason, to be honest, is Covid,” Ms Richards tells The Independent from behind the counter of her gift shop.

Whitby night sky (Maya Oppenheim)
Whitby night sky (Maya Oppenheim)

“And the way all of that happened. The way they behaved. I lost someone very dear to me during Covid. My mother-in-law died on her own, confused, not knowing where we were, two days after they were having their parties.”

Ms Richards, whose shop is called Wind and Willow, says she is unsure about who to vote for, unimpressed by all the parties, saying many of her friends feel the same.

She says she is likely to vote, begrudgingly, for Labour for the first time, despite being fiercely critical of Sir Keir.

“I think he is weak, and I think he is really just a Tory,” she says.

Ms Richards, who has lived in Whitby for six years but grew up on the south coast, was even more scathing of Rishi Sunak, whom she accused of being out of touch with real people.

“He hasn’t got a clue really, has he?” she says. “With all his money and his wife’s money, I don’t think he’s got a clue what it’s like.”

She referred to the NHS and education as priorities, admitting she sometimes regretted voting for Brexit – something she says has had “a huge impact” on the rising cost of living.

Whitby Woman, Essex Man

Voting profiles akin to the Whitby woman are routinely wheeled out during elections. The Mondeo man was a target voter for both the Tories and Labour in the 1992 election, while others have included Essex man, Worcester woman, Waitrose woman and, most recently, Workington man, a Brexit supporter who played a key role in Boris Johnson’s win in the North East in 2019.

The Scarborough and Whitby constituency has been a Tory seat since Robert Goodwill picked it up from Labour in 2005. He is stepping aside this time around, having won in 2019 by just over 10,000 votes.

Featuring in Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula novel and visited by Goth daytrippers, Whitby combines high levels of deprivation with bougie gift shops and rising house prices.

Packed with holiday lets, Airbnbs, quirky shops selling grumpy slogan T-shirts, and kids on school trips, the coastal town looks a thriving tourist hotspot. But beneath the surface, as with much of the country, problems linger – with locals priced out and its closest A&E having some of the country’s lengthiest waits.

Luke Tryl, executive director of More in Common, warns that Whitby woman’s decision on election day could lead to an “absolute catastrophe” for the Tories. He says the risk is that she may choose not to vote at all.

Women who fit the profile of Whitby woman can be found all over the country, he says, describing the target voter as “small-C conservative”, and “softly sceptical about politics” with a “live-and-let-live attitude”.

A sculpture by Whitby artist Emma Stothard (Maya Oppenheim)
A sculpture by Whitby artist Emma Stothard (Maya Oppenheim)

The Whitby woman is “more immigration sceptic” than the wider population but is not “hyper political”, he says, adding that More in Common has found that women make up seven in 10 undecided voters.

Whitby woman’s core voting priorities, he says, are problems facing the NHS, the cost of living crisis, pensions and strong economic management.

‘Really messed it up’

Joyce O’Keefe, who works in a cafe in Whitby, says she will definitely be voting, but that she is undecided about who for.

“I am very confused,” the 62-year-old, who has lived in Whitby for eight years, adds. “I have no idea who to vote for this year. I don’t feel either of them are going to make very much of a difference.”

Arcade in Whitby (Maya Oppenheim)
Arcade in Whitby (Maya Oppenheim)

Despite voting for the Tories in 2019, she will not be doing so again as “they really have messed it up”, she says.

“We didn’t vote for Rishi,” Ms O’Keefe adds.

“We didn’t choose him to be the leader. It’s not working. I don’t like Keir Starmer and I don’t see him saying anything of any strength. All I seem to see him doing is arguing against what the Conservatives are doing, but I’m not hearing any policies.”

Neither the PM nor the leader of the opposition “have enough personality” to win her over, she concludes, adding that she will not be voting for the Reform Party either – a different view to that espoused in the party’s meeting we attend the night before.

Reform Party poster outside a Whitby pub (Maya Oppenheim)
Reform Party poster outside a Whitby pub (Maya Oppenheim)

Ms O’Keefe, who lived in Teesside before moving to Whitby, says she voted for Brexit in 2016 but Britain’s departure from the EU didn’t work out how she thought it would.

“I don’t feel it’s made a big enough difference to us,” she says. “I think all we’ve seen from it is negatives with regard to travel and everything. I’m not seeing any positives from it.”

Surrounded by beige fudge, technicolour rock and strict signs warning you are not to feed the seagulls, an elderly man steers himself along with his Nova Check walker, while a young woman sits in a stationary electric blue Nissan, knitting as she gives her friend advice with her phone on speaker.

T-shirts hanging in a Whitby shop (Maya Oppenheim)
T-shirts hanging in a Whitby shop (Maya Oppenheim)

“Anyone for a sea trip today,” a man asks onlookers. “Sail on one of Whitby’s biggest pleasure boats.”

Karen Noble, who owns a clothes shop in the town, says she fits the voter profile of the Whitby woman, apart from the fact that she did not vote for Brexit, due to wanting to move abroad.

The 63-year-old lifelong Tory voter says she has finally decided she will vote for the Reform Party after feeling deeply uncertain.

Karen Noble in the doorway of her shop (Maya Oppenheim)
Karen Noble in the doorway of her shop (Maya Oppenheim)

Discussion in the shop in the last fortnight has been dominated by female and wavering Tory voters, who are concerned about long A&E waits in nearby Scarborough.

“The other week I ended up in A&E and they wanted me to go to Scarborough,” says Ms Noble. “I refused to go because last time I went I was in the corridor for 15 hours.”