Does the need to retain provincial working class support mean the Conservatives’ traditional commitment to a small state is over? After all, Rishi Sunak’s Budget – which significantly expanded the size and role of the state – has been blamed on the supposed demands of the Party’s new working class base.
This is wrong: these new working class voters give the Conservatives a real opportunity to roll back the frontiers of the state and significantly reduce the tax burden. This isn’t to say they want the state to play no role in English life – hardly anyone wants real libertarianism – but within the realms of the real world, the Conservatives can make significant gains to reduce the state’s size without working class opposition.
Here is a brief summary of working class attitudes to the state.
1. They’re more in favour of lower taxes than professionals. A recent poll for the TPA was unambiguous: working class voters are now the low tax voters, not Southern professionals. This was just the latest example of what is becoming a defining trend within English politics. Why is this? Most obviously, because their limited disposable income has been eaten into by higher taxes and higher prices to a much greater extent than professionals’ income. Tax cuts are frequently written off as a preoccupation of rich businesspeople; this is simply wrong.
2. They believe that much of Government spending is wasted. It’s certainly my experience from focus groups – and also the TPA’s experience during their grassroots campaigns – but our poll for the TPA confirmed it: working class voters are more likely to think the Government wastes money. While professional voters were much more likely than working class voters to say that some money was wasted by Government but not enough to be a problem, working class voters were much more likely than professionals to say that “most of it” was wasted.
3. They don’t trust politicians. This is crucial to understand and helps bring the first two points together. The anti-politics movement that grew in the 2000s was in part created by a sense Labour had let them down with promises on the economy and society that were not met. Specifically, many working class voters did not believe higher spending on public services – paid for by higher taxes – had sufficiently raised standards. You can trace a shift in working class / lower middle class voting habits from Labour to Conservative in the mid-2000s as this feeling took hold (it’s also linked to low-tax UKIP’s rise). Fundamentally, working class voters are sceptical about politicians’ promises; from this a compelling argument for a small state can be made.
4. They are apolitical. It’s often said left-wing people are more politically interested than conservatives; this is true: there’s an intensity of interest in politics and activism amongst left-wing people that is baffling. This distinction is true by social background too; working class people are almost entirely apolitical. This doesn’t mean they don’t care about things like the quality of public services; rather, that they don’t care about much other than outcomes – ie how services work. Working class voters are therefore highly pragmatic and are open to different ways of doing things; they don’t immediately go mad because they hear, for example, businesses might be involved in something.
5. They are less supportive of new lifestyle taxes. In the summer, after the publication of the National Food Study – which raised the prospect of higher taxes on particular unhealthy products – YouGov research suggested big gaps between professional and non-professional voters on the issue. The poll itself presented an incredibly positive vision of how such taxes might work, yet still failed to secure big working class support. And this takes us back to the points made above: because they’re less affluent, they’re more hostile to lifestyle taxes; and because they’re less political, they’re more sceptical of Government promises. Again, they’re not self-consciously, ideologically libertarian – but their lack of belief in grand political schemes makes them effectively libertarian.
6. They are great beneficiaries of a consumer boom. Because they struggle more with money, working class voters are more reliant on the great benefits capitalism has brought the consumer. They don’t consciously credit capitalism with any of this and it’d be hard to make this point to them. Regardless, it does mean they are hostile towards measures that would make consumer goods more expensive and positive towards policies that promote commerce – particularly local commerce (on the high street). For those pushing a small state agenda, this is obviously extremely useful. Incidentally, in my experience this means they are positive towards cuts in business rates, but also hostile to taxes that would raise the costs of goods online – which they don’t see as a trade off. (Declaration of interest: my agency has worked for many businesses in the retail and tech sectors).
7. The understand – in very practical ways – the need to support business. For a couple of years after the referendum, there was a marked shift amongst working class voters towards “the interests” of business – including big business (see this poll I did for the TPA a couple of years ago). With all the talk post-Brexit of businesses leaving the UK, working class voters became temperamentally protective of them – swinging behind things like corporation tax cuts. As time has gone on, this support for big businesses has waned and they’re now more open to taxing them to pay for deficit reduction post-Covid and to pay for Net Zero policies. However, the point remains that working class voters can see – and have seen – the need for policies that support business.
I’ve obviously given the positives about a small state here. What about the negatives? There are of course several but two will immediately jump out to anyone that takes an interest in this big question: levelling up and the NHS – arguably the two biggest political themes of this Parliament after Brexit. On levelling up, as I’ve been writing on these pages for many months, it’s true that working class voters want a well-funded public realm – so, properly maintained town centres, parks, squares and war memorials, as well as police and CCTV to maintain order. This focus on civic pride can be done with relatively small amounts of money, but it’s money that must come from the state.
On the NHS, while the Conservatives aren’t talking about seriously reforming it, it’s such an important issue it’s worth raising here. Working class commitment to an NHS free at the point of use is total – and they want it properly, massively funded. However, there’s an interesting caveat: a poll by Reform from 2018 (also confirmed by my groups) showed working class voters agreed by a greater margin than middle class voters that it was essentially irrelevant run actually runs hospitals and surgeries as long as they’re free at the point of use. In other words, they’re theoretically open to NHS reform as long as it appears to work in the same way.
What does this all mean?
If the Conservatives were serious about rolling back the frontiers of the state, working class voters would voice little opposition. But they’d have to speak to working class voters on their own terms. I’ve touched on this before, but it means ditching the positive, optimistic language of the past – all the stuff about opportunity, enterprise and so on, which is lost on them – and instead talking practically about outcomes and about the limits of the genius of politicians and officials. In other words, it would mean admitting that politicians don’t have all the answers and can’t – from a delivery perspective – be trusted with vast sums of taxpayers’ money. Most politicians are uncomfortable with this – even supposedly right-leaning Conservative ones – and it will therefore be difficult to make progress.