How the working class was shut out

No party in Britain speaks for, or even appeals to, the working class.

James Heartfield

Topics Books

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Oxford politics professors James Tilley and Geoffrey Evans have written a fine study of how social class and voting for political parties interact, based on extensive polling evidence, attitudinal surveys and other statistical analyses. Their main claim is that the party-political system has tended to sideline working-class voters.

As they point out, there has been quite a marked change since the 1960s, when electoral politics was first and foremost about the contest for the working-class vote (on the understanding that the working class was the most numerous and so key to winning). That makes the shift in the 1990s towards the more recent political model, where the main contest is for the centre ground, and the middle-class vote, all the more remarkable. Hovering over the whole study, therefore, are the figures of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, architects of the Labour Party’s transition from a party that appealed to the working class, to one – New Labour – that dismissed its old core voters in pursuit of the new professional middle classes, between 1995 and 2015.

Evans and Tilley look at claims that the divide between the working class and middle class no longer holds and conclude that they are not true. Many people have argued that the reason that class politics is dead is that the old working class no longer exists, that it has become so individuated that there is no longer any boundary between it and the middle class, or that value identifications are more important than those based on social class.

With great attention, Evans and Tilley show that working-class people do strongly identify with the working class, much as they have done for decades. Moreover, working- and middle-class people are strongly aware of the division between the classes, and, depending on where they are, are aware of social inequality. They point out that there are some very clear differences in outlook along class lines.

Evans and Tilley’s research was complete when, in June 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Quite a few social scientists have tried to argue against the obvious conclusion that the Brexit vote was an expression of working-class discontent. Evans and Tilley are having none of that. ‘The Brexit vote clearly confounds sociological accounts that assume that the influence of social structure on politics is in terminal decline’, they say. Far from it, as they explain: ‘While 63 per cent of people in working-class jobs voted to leave, only 44 per cent of those in middle-class jobs did.’

Evans and Tilley’s estimate of the influence of social class on the Brexit vote is intelligent because they were already looking at the exclusion of the working class from political representation when the Brexit vote happened. Instead of trying to juggle the numbers to suit their own prejudices – as so many political scientists tried to do – they could see the patterns of dealignment and realignment in the vote. So they point out that much of the increase in turnout in the referendum was from working-class voters who had not voted in preceding elections.

The most interesting chapter looks at the dealignment of class and voting. Against many claims, Evans and Tilley explain that the breach between working-class voting and the Labour Party has not been a long and continuous process. Rather, they point out, there is a strong breach between the Labour Party and the working-class vote in the early 21st century, in particular with the 2001 General Election. According to the British Election Survey data, working-class support for Labour fell from 60 per cent in 1962 to just above 20 per cent in 2015, with most of that fall coming from the point that Tony Blair rebranded the party ‘New Labour’. Evans and Tilley point out that Labour’s working-class vote has declined, so much so that you can no longer talk about a class alignment in party voting, and, though it is too late to be included here, the Conservative Party won a greater share of the working-class vote in 2017 than the Labour Party. Summarising the trend, Evans and Tilley are clear that ‘levels of class voting were largely static for half a century from the 1940s to the mid-1990s’:

‘[Voters’] views of parties are stubbornly held and it takes a shock to change them. In Britain in the 1990s there was such a shock. Labour radically changed its nature and in a short space of time crucially made this very obvious to the electorate.’

From the outcome of the 2015 General Election onwards, we can see that Labour’s attempts to move away from its working-class base have proved over time to be self-defeating. Ed Miliband’s electoral hopes were dashed when many working-class voters stayed home, leaving him high and dry. Evans and Tilley are quite astute on the way that third parties also managed to drain off Labour’s support. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party beat Labour. Evans and Tilley point out that the SNP ‘relied on mostly middle-class voters to make its electoral breakthrough’, but most painfully, ‘in 2015 only 34 per cent of working-class Scots saw Labour as a party for the working class’. Somewhat against most accounts, Evans and Tilley show, by contrast, that ‘it was working-class voters who were predominantly drawn to UKIP’ before the referendum on EU membership.

Since Evans and Tilley’s main contention is the continuity of class identification among British people, a question that looms is why it is that the political process has so pointedly shifted in favour of a contest for the middle-class vote. This is the least successful part of their account. They do say that the middle class is larger (principally because of the growth of what they call the New Middle Class – architects, lecturers and dieticians, for example), and the working class correspondingly smaller, and so the parties have vied for the growing middle-class vote. But that rather seems to give too much ground to the account that they chip away at elsewhere of the declining importance of the working class.

Moreover, Evans and Tilley seem to have almost completely bypassed the most important change in working-class identification: trade-union membership and militancy. This can be seen in the precipitate fall in trade-union membership (down from 13million in 1979 to 6.2million in 2016). Even more marked is the fall in strike activity by workers, a fall so great that days lost in strikes in the 1970s and 1980s were as much as one hundred times greater than in recent years (27million in 1985, 29million in 1979, but only 170,000 in 2015 and 320,000 in 2016). Those numbers are indicative of a change that Evans and Tilley do not foreground. That is less to do with attitude and identification as to do with activism and purpose. What their statistics indicating the continuity of working-class identification over the years do not show is that for a substantial, indeed leading, section of the organised working class, to be working class was more than a condition: it was connected to a goal, socialism.

More than any sociological changes in the makeup of occupational groups in British society, it is the subjective identification with change that put the working class in the centre of the political contest in the mid-20th century. It has been the collapse in an active labour movement that allowed Tony Blair’s clique to reorient the party away from the working class and towards a middle-class base.

Evans and Tilley are interesting on the values of the working class. They see the working class as more socially conservative because it is less sympathetic to immigration than other classes. But then, as they point out, no social classes are that sympathetic to immigration. They tend to annexe anti-EU sentiment to anti-immigrant sentiment, but their own numbers show that anti-EU sentiment rose much more sharply, suggesting that the EU had become emblematic of the professionalisation of public life. On other scales, working people are becoming a lot more liberal than they used to be, with a markedly greater openness to homosexuality than there has been.

Evans and Tilley’s views on the current party leaders’ ability to appeal to working people are not optimistic. They note that Jeremy Corbyn is economically in line with working-class voters, but that his party is much closer to the New Middle Class than the old working class in its social views. They think, too, that Labour’s half-hearted Remain position will fail to impress working-class voters. Despite Tory leader Theresa May’s ‘one nation’ rhetoric, they wonder whether the rest of her party are that interested in working-class voters. Evans and Tilley are realistic about the prospect of the old party system appealing to working-class voters, but we can take from recent voting upsets that the greater mass of working-class people are not satisfied with being sidelined.

James Heartfield is the author of several books. His most recent, a history of The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, is published by Hurst Books.

The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class, by Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, is published by OUP Oxford. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Books


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