I didn’t believe it at first.It has taken a long time to absorb and understand it.It seems so contrary to everything we have always known about politics in Britain that it requires a big adjustment of our world view.The link between class and voting has been reversed.People are now more likely to vote Tory if they are working class than if they are middle class – and the other way round for Labour.It was not until the elections last week that this fact suddenly became a staple of political analysis.But when Hartlepool, a name that might as well mean “Always Labour” in ancient Norse, fell to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, everyone knew that something was up.And when Labour gained Chipping Norton in the local council elections on the same day, and the mayoralties of the West of England and of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, we knew that the world had been turned upside down.
Realisation had been dawning for some time.
When Labour won Canterbury and Kensington in 2017, it felt as if the ground was moving beneath our feet; and when it lost so many working-class seats in the north and Midlands in 2019.I knew that the association between class and voting had weakened since 2005.At each election since then the correlation declined, until it seemed to disappear altogether in 2019, with some pollsters such as YouGov suggesting it had gone into reverse.To be honest, I was enjoying myself too much making fun of Corbynites to appreciate the deeper significance of the change.Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters suffered from cognitive dissonance if you pointed out that the Labour vote had become more middle class when he was leader than it had been when Tony Blair – Mondeo Man, Tory-lite sucker-up to the rich – was in charge.Labour had more middle-class supporters under Corbyn than when Blair was in chargeWe Blairites had little to be happy about in those years so we had to make our own entertainment.But there was always a serious point.New Labour was more pro-working-class than its critics ever allowed, as Chris Clarke has shown in an impressively detailed analysis, seat by seat and election by election.
Yes, Tony Blair won more affluent seats than his predecessors and his successors, but he also won more deprived seats than they did.New Labour was more successful in winning the votes of the existing working class than Corbyn, who was devoted to an ideal of the proletariat while promoting policies that consisted largely of huge subsidies to the middle classes.Corbynites didn’t really understand when we pointed out that free tuition fees, ending the means test for free childcare, and free school meals for all would benefit the better off more than the poor.It was richly fitting that in handing out all these goodies to the middle class, the drafters of the 2017 manifesto – alarmingly described by Keir Starmer as his foundation document – forgot to put in a promise to reverse the Conservative cuts in welfare benefits.It was extraordinary that the Labour Party was in the hands of people who described themselves as “class struggle socialists”, as Nadia Whittome, the new MP for Nottingham East did in a New Statesman interview this year, only to find themselves struggling for the votes of the bourgeoisie.Still, Corbyn isn’t around any more, so that game is over, and it is time for some serious analysis of what is happening in the substructure of politics.I was struck by something that David Gauke, the former cabinet minister expelled by the Conservative Party , said about how his party had changed.He said he thought “the probability is” that the party won’t swing back to “the kind of Toryism that existed pre-Brexit”.He thought there had been a fundamental change, one that was reflected in US politics as well.Of people think they’re working class, up from 45% in 1948I began to track what I called the Great Class Inversion, noticing that opinion polls since the 2019 election suggested that the working class was now more likely to vote Conservative than Labour, and that Labour was doing better among middle-class voters than working-class ones.
We seemed to have passed the class-divide crossover point.That couldn’t be right, could it? Perhaps it was an illusion created by the social grade classification used by pollsters.Most of the polling companies use the traditional market-research categories, in which the A, B and C1 groups (non-manual jobs) are loosely called middle class, while C2 and D (non-manual) and E (casual workers and unemployed) are lumped together as working class.They are crude, but the distinction between manual and non-manual workers is the main one.The picture is a bit fuzzy, and varies from pollster to pollster, but generally in recent months the Conservatives have a slightly bigger lead among C2DE voters than among ABC1 voters.One of the polling companies, Opinium, uses a simpler classification, dividing workers into “blue collar” (manual workers) and “white collar” (non-manual workers).
In its three polls in April, it found an average Labour lead of 2 points among white-collar workers, and a Tory lead of 9 points among blue-collar workers.Johnson campaigns in Hartlepool, in the north-east of England, a former Labour stronghold Other ways of defining class are possible.One of the better methods, I think, given how amorphous and subjective ideas of class are, is simply to ask people to which class they think they belong.There are two striking things about this kind of research.One is that more people describe themselves as “working class” now than did in the 1940s.In a survey this year, BritainThinks found that 54 per cent of people called themselves working class, compared with 45 per cent in a Gallup poll in 1948, when many more people were in manual jobs.That survey was carried out by Deborah Mattinson, who has just been appointed director of strategy for the Labour Party by Keir Starmer as part of his post-election reshuffle.If Labour wants to understand the Great Class Inversion, it has chosen the right person.
The other striking finding of Mattinson’s research was that most people don’t see themselves as belonging to a class at all.When people are forced to choose between working or middle, the results don’t match the ABC1-C2DE division very well, although ABC1s are more likely to think of themselves as middle class and C2DEs as working class.But two-thirds of people, whatever their social grade or their forced-choice class, say they do not think of themselves “as belonging to any particular social class”.Yet class is still important.That finding reminds me of the old joke about a student asking a fellow postgrad what her PhD was about.
“How the class system works in America.” “I didn’t know there was a class system in America.” “That’s how it works.” However, class is clearly not just about what job you do.It is also about culture, identity, income and – perhaps above all – education.The Conservatives can no longer be described as the party of the well-off, while Labour is no longer the party of those on low incomesThat is why the Great Inversion should not have come as a complete surprise.Higher education has been associated with Labour voting for some time, and the expansion of higher education means that graduates are a more important part of the Labour vote.The Brexit referendum gave that trend a sharp push, as people with degrees tended to vote to remain in the EU, while the Conservative Party was increasingly identified with those who had voted to leave.As Gauke said, this is a deep trend that is probably only going one way, paralleled by what is happening in the US.
There, as David Shor, the brilliant data analyst, points out, “college-educated professionals have basically become Democrats”.He says that “very rich people still lean Republican”, but that education is the big divide between the parties, and it is strongly linked to income and status.This is where class gets real.So let us dispense with class altogether and look just at incomes.I thought that this might be where the Great Inversion theory would come unstuck.
It may be that a lot of graduates in relatively low-paid “left-wing” jobs are Labour supporters, but that rich graduates are still likely to be Conservatives.Conversely, I thought, it is possible that a lot of low-paid people might not have a strong class identity and yet vote Labour.Jubilation at the Woolston Social Club in Warrington as the UK leaves EuropeThis is the acid test, and I found the facts astonishing.In the 2019 election, which Boris Johnson won by a margin of 12 percentage points, the Conservatives had a 15-point lead among the poorest fifth of the electorate, while among the richest fifth their lead was only 9 points.This was a reversal of the position in the 2017 election just two years earlier, when Labour was just ahead of the Tories among low-income voters (by 1 point), while the Tories were 8 points ahead among high-income voters.These figures are from the British Election Study, the biggest academic survey of voting behaviour.
In an analysis by Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the authors comment: “These changes mean that, at least in terms of electoral politics, the Conservatives can no longer be described as the party of the well-off, while Labour is no longer the party of those on low incomes.The Conservatives are now more popular among those on low incomes than they are among those on high incomes.
British politics is not so saturated with money, but the left is not outgunned in the way it used to be“Labour is now just as popular among the very wealthy as it is among those on low incomes.Both parties have thus seen major changes in their traditional support base.This reflects how some of the founding rules of British politics have been overturned.It also points to a more general realignment of British politics, with low-income voters increasingly drifting into a new political home in response to a specific set of concerns – most clearly articulated around the issue of Brexit, though not necessarily confined to it.”This is huge news to those of us who learned our politics at the feet of John Curtice and the academic debate about “class dealignment” in the 1980s.Curtice and his colleagues, in How Britain Votes (1987) and Understanding Political Change (1991), argued that class was not becoming less important in explaining voting behaviour over time, but that changes in class voting showed “trendless fluctuation”, reflecting political changes such as the launch of the Social Democratic Party.Now, as Goodwin and Heath argue, we really are seeing a class realignment, triggered by the Brexit vote but rolling on from 2017 to 2019 and to last week’s elections.In some ways, the change is obvious, and hardly needs survey evidence to back it up.
The photo of manual workers in the north of England with their homemade “We Love Boris” poster in the Conservative manifesto; Labour winning university seats; the weight of establishment Remainer disdain for a Vote Leave government portraying itself as a bunch of outsiders, the champions of the voiceless.John Curtice argued against class realignment in some of his earlier books but Brexit changed all thatBut in other ways, the change is so shocking that it will take years for Labour in particular to come to terms with it.People on low incomes are less likely to vote for a party that thinks of itself as existing to benefit them than are people on high incomes, who might be expected to foot the bill.All of the Labour Party’s assumptions and rhetoric are about “the many not the few”, with the many meaning those from the middle to the low end of the income scale.All of the assumptions of political commentary rest on the idea that the Conservatives are the party of the rich, of business and of the elite.But now, as Shor says of America, the elite is trending to the left.
The graduate professions in the US are becoming Democratic, just as they are becoming Labour (with a side order of Green and Liberal Democrat) over here.For the many, not the few was Labour’s 2017 campaign slogan when Corbyn was riding highThat has huge consequences, as Shor notes.One is that the Democratic Party has money.It has far more small donors than the Republicans – and as Shor points out, they might be called “small” donors but they tend to be rich people.And it enjoys a more benign media environment than in the past.
For all the fuss about Fox News pushing Republican propaganda, the more significant fact is that most journalists in most media organisations are graduates whose personal leanings tend to the Democrats.Tory lead among poorest fifth of the electorate in 2019It is the same here.British politics may not so saturated with money as in the US, but the left used to be outspent, and now it is not.For all that Corbyn’s opponents complained about “£3 entryists” – Ed Miliband’s scheme to allow people to sign up as registered supporters to vote in leadership elections – the truth is that Labour’s huge membership raised vast sums of money, mainly at full expensive rates and through “small” donations.Only last month the Electoral Commission published figures for spending in 2019 on the European elections and the general election, showing that the Lib Dems and Labour together outspent the Tories and the Brexit Party – that is, Remain outspent Leave.The British media are very different from those in the US too, but again, individual journalists tend to be graduates and are overwhelmingly Remainers if not Labour.
Some of them work for newspapers that are explicitly Tory, or for broadcasters that are statutorily required to be impartial, but it must make a difference.Miliband allowed people to sign up as registered supporters for just £3 to vote in leadership electionsBut the biggest consequence is likely to be in changing the issues over which parties compete.If people on low incomes won’t vote for a party that thinks it exists to shift “the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people”, in Tony Benn’s words in the February 1974 Labour manifesto, perhaps the party will start to care about other things.Perhaps that is why Corbyn didn’t notice that his manifestos involved shifting resources in favour of the better off, or that he had left out the promise to restore benefit cuts.Perhaps that is why Labour (here) and the Democrats (there) have allowed themselves to be diverted into the “culture war” issues that drive away some of their lower-income socially conservative supporters.Read More: One of the most telling comments of the Hartlepool by-election came from the SDP candidate – the party having been reborn as a Eurosceptic version of the original that broke away from Labour in 1981.
“Labour now is rich people telling poor people that other rich people are their problem,” he said.The big question is whether the Great Class Inversion is just a Brexit blip, after which politics will revert to a more familiar shape, when the shock of leaving the EU has worked its way through the system.I don’t think so, because the expansion of higher education is the long-term trend.It is hard to imagine the Conservatives changing places with Labour as the party of redistribution or greater equality.Johnson’s “levelling up” slogan seems like an anodyne attempt to claim that ground.But it may be that the ground on which elections will be fought will shift from the economic to questions of identity.
If we thought the 2019 election was unusual in being fought over the Brexit question, maybe it was the model for elections to come.Hod father: Boris Johnson, an unlikely leader of the working classLabour had more middle-class supporters under Corbyn than when Blair was in chargeJohnson campaigns in Hartlepool, in the north-east of England, a former Labour stronghold Jubilation at the Woolston Social Club in Warrington as the UK leaves EuropeJohn Curtice argued against class realignment in some of his earlier books but Brexit changed all thatFor the many, not the few was Labour’s 2017 campaign slogan when Corbyn was riding highMiliband allowed people to sign up as registered supporters for just £3 to vote in leadership elections .