James Frayne: Class politics still matters - unfortunately for Labour
The opposition are right that class can be weaponised, but they have chosen the wrong targets.
We often hear that class no longer matters in politics.
In the last decade, Boris Johnson beat Ken Livingstone twice in left-leaning London, and David Cameron beat Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband despite Labour’s shift to define themselves against “rich Tories”.
Labour’s frequent attempts at direct class war – with references to Eton, the Bullingdon Club and various Tories’ vast wealth – appear to have fallen flat. But the death of class politics has been exaggerated - it’s still alive and kicking.
Let’s look at class politics at its most basic. In London, some wonder whether widespread gentrification will further embed Labour politicians because of so many “middle class lefties”. But these people are small in number. The reality is that richer people still vote Tory and poorer people still vote Labour. At the last election, it’s estimated that the wealthiest “A” voters chose the Conservatives over Labour by 53% to 25, while poorer “E” voters chose Labour over the Conservatives by 36% to 29% (to be fair, closer than might be expected).
So, rich Tory voters and poor Labour voters? All very obvious, perhaps. But the story becomes more interesting when you delve into party perceptions. YouGov polling for Policy Exchange before the last election revealed “A” voters are primarily interested in the quality of the NHS, keeping the country safe, boosting economic growth and limiting immigration. “E” voters put limiting immigration and maintaining a generous welfare system joint top, followed by the quality of the NHS and reducing the gap between rich and poor. Labour have long-held leads on the NHS and the Conservatives have long-held leads on immigration. Yet A voters still choose the Conservatives and E voters still choose Labour.
This mismatch must partly be explained by the fact that many voters also think, according to Policy Exchange’s YouGov polling, that the Conservative Party chiefly represents rich people, businesspeople and people on middle incomes, while they believe Labour represents those on low incomes, trade unionists and people on benefits. The reputation of the parties – derived from their publicly stated priorities and their histories – clearly affects voter choice.
This implies that people are voting “for their class”, displaying obvious self-interest. But there is another, more compelling possibility – that, where class is concerned, people vote more strongly on the basis of what they are against than what they are for. And a look at the great mass of lower middle class C1/C2 voters - who make up half the electorate – strongly suggests this to be the case.
Over the last five elections, C1/C2 voters have elected both Labour and Tory Governments but they have been deserting Labour in droves since Tony Blair left office. In 1997, 37% of C1 voters voted Tory and the same voted Labour. By 2015, 41% voted Tory compared to 29% Labour. In 1997, C2 voters chose Labour over the Tories by 50% to 27%; in 2015, C2 voters chose the Tories and Labour in equal numbers – at 32%.
When we look at why, our pre-election polling showed that C1/C2 voters have a particular obsession with “fairness” – and a clear desire for a welfare system that rewards only those that have paid into it and really need help. It looks as though people are partly voting against Labour because they are perceived to be primarily on the side of people that don’t “deserve” the level of support that they get.
Let’s put the morality of the issue to one side and look at opinion as it is. Ordinary lower middle class voters don’t share the same concern that politicians in particular, and Labour politicians particularly, have for the poorest and those on welfare. Many lower middle class voters believe that they work hard and don’t take welfare - or are refused it - while others get something for nothing. This seems to irritate them far, far more than those that Labour (often rightly) portray as the undeserving rich – perhaps because poorer voters are more visible to them than very rich ones.
Apparent middle class hostility to Labour’s new image is not a reflection of traditional class politics. In fact, many people who are blatantly middle class still self-identify as working class. People are irritated with what they see, rightly or wrongly, as a something for nothing culture in Britain that Labour fosters rather than challenges. This is class politics, but not as we might traditionally think about it.
Labour’s failed attempts at class war don’t prove that class politics is dead. On the contrary, Labour are right that the public remain interested in class and they are right that class can be weaponised in negative political campaigns. But unfortunately for them they have chosen the wrong people to defend and the wrong people to attack. The more they play class politics along these lines, the more they lose.
James Frayne is Director of Policy & Strategy at Policy Exchange and author of Meet the People, a guide to public affairs campaigns.
Picture by: Lewis Whyld/PA Archive/Press Association Images