Claire Ainsley is the author of The New Working Class: how to win hearts, minds and votes, published today. She is Executive Director of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the book is written in a personal capacity.
At the last general election, Theresa May made a distinct pitch to a particular audience. At the halfway point in the campaign, the Conservative battle bus went into the heart of traditional Labour territory to make an appeal to working class voters. Whilst the pitch was not enough to win those seats, the Conservatives did have one of their best showings amongst working class voters in 2017. And historically, Labour’s working class vote is declining. So who is now working class, and how can political parties gain their support?
My new book finds that there is still a sizeable working class in Britain today, but it has changed, and politics has failed to change with it. With the exception of May’s recent pitch, politicians don’t often talk about the working class. And when they do, they are usually talking about the traditional working class – an important but shrinking part of the population. But even today, more people will say themselves that they are working class than say they are middle class, despite years of politicians focussing on middle class and ‘aspirational’ voters.
Up and down the country there are millions of people who could be considered new working class. But it is different to the traditional working class. It is made up of people doing jobs in the service sector like retail, hospitality and care; it is multi-ethnic, and diverse; living off low to middle incomes. The new working class is not some distant grouping: it is in every town, city, village, high street, office, shop and place of work. It makes up nearly half the population.
Many of these voters do not feel like any political party is speaking for them. This is not a reflection on the current leaders of any of the parties: this has been a historic trend as Labour’s association with social class, and social class identity itself, has been weakened over time. My book set out to find out how to win their hearts, minds and votes. What does this tell the Conservatives?
How the working class voted 1964-2015
Source: Goodwin/Heath for JRF (2017)
There are three main conclusions for the Conservatives. The first is that there are plenty of vote-winning policies which could be taken up by the main parties but they need to move closer to where the public is. Policies such as a day one employment rights charter for all, and incentivising businesses and employers to take on social responsibilities, are the kinds of policies that could gain the backing of the new working class.
The second is that the new working class, and the general public, do not perceive the Conservatives’ values to be closely aligned to their most important values. Using the data from Policy Exchange’s research for the Just About Managing report by James Frayne, four values stood out for the new working class, and amongst all groups: family, fairness, hard work and decency. The policy agenda in the book is built around this framework. But the values most closely associated with the Conservatives – such as entrepreneurship and tradition – did not rate as highly. And Labour has a closer alignment with the values felt to be most important to the new working class, and the wider general public.
The third is that policies do matter, but only take you so far. Social identities play an important role in voter choice, and policies can act as clues, telling the voter who the party is. This new working class is very, very different to the working class that has gone before it and much more diverse. It won’t answer to a label of class but it will pick up on signals – positive and negative – that a party is on their side.
All political parties are guilty of listening to themselves, and people like them, too often. Above all, this is an appeal to all of the parties to understand this new working class, to listen to their interests and views, and act on them. The party that does could hold the key to the next election.