Long term Influences on voting: Class

■ Class AB Higher managerial, company director, higher professional such as lawyers

■ Class C1 Supervisors, clerical workers, junior managers, lower professional such as nurses

■ Class C2 Skilled manual occupations

■ Class DE Unskilled manual workers, basic catering, unemployed

The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class. Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley. Oxford University Press. 2017.

Professor James Tilley argues that the working class were abandoned by a new middle class politics. Rather than the working class disappearing their interests and concerns were sideline by the main parties- particularly the Labour Party.

Traditionally the most significant influence on voting in Britain was class. Working class people - who earned a living from manual labour - mostly voted for the Labour Party. There were strong ties, both historical and emotional between the trade union movement and the Labour Party. The unions represented the interests of those who worked in the traditional heavy industries of coal, steel, textiles and shipbuilding. The middle classes (non-manual or 'white collar' workers, property owners and business people) tended to vote Conservative. This is known as class alignment or class voting - voting in line with the political party that seems to best protect and serve the interests of a particular class.

The reasons why class used to be closely associated with voting trends are fairly straightforward. Three links stand out:

● The way one voted was a part of one’s class identity. To be middle or upper class was to be conservative, to be working class meant you would support the party of the working class. Voting Labour expressed your class solidarity. Voting Conservative added to your status (even though it was a secret ballot).

● Both major parties developed strong, deep roots within communities, so there was a culture of voting for one party or another. The wealthy commuter belt around London, for example, was steeped in Conservative values while the poorer east of London had a strong sense of being a Labour-led community. Such roots were strengthened by Labour’s associations with strong trade unions.

● There was a selfish reason. The Conservative Party was perceived to govern more in the interests of the middle class and the better of while Labour developed policies to help the working class and the poor. It was therefore rational to choose the party associated with your class.

Until the 1970s, class was widely seen as the key to understanding voting behaviour in the UK. Peter Pulzer (1967) was able to declare, famously: ‘Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail’. The stable Conservative–Labour two-party system of the 1945– 70 period was largely a reflection of what was called ‘class alignment’ (a link between class and voting). For example, in 1964–66, 64 per cent of working class or manual voters (classes C2, D and E, see p. 12) voted Labour, while 62 per cent of middle-class or non-manual voters (classes A, B and C1) voted Conservative. Overall, in 1966, 66 per cent of voters could be classified as class voters, in that they supported their ‘natural’ party.

In recent decades class began to lose its importance as a determinant of voting behaviour - a process called class dealignment.

There was never a completely clear-cut social divide between the two parties. Labour also commanded the support of a section of the middle class, especially those who worked in the state sector, such as teachers and social workers, and it had a following among university intellectuals. The Conservatives appealed to deferential and patriotic working class voters who valued established institutions such as the monarchy. Without an appeal beyond the ranks of the middle classes, they would not have held office for the greater part of the period.

The link between class and voting is certainly no longer as pronounced as it was in the years after the Second World War. As society has become more affluent and working-class people have aspired to a middle-class way of life, the differences between people in terms of class have not been as visible. This was already apparent by the time of the 1979 election, but it gathered pace in the 1980s, promoted by the sale of council houses to their tenants under the Thatcher government. The decline of the old heavy industries reduced trade union power, while the service sector, which was less unionised, expanded. The privatisation of many industries and services reduced the size of the public sector, which was traditionally a source of support for the Labour Party. The creation of New Labour in the 1990s was a recognition of this trend.

Tony Blair's victory in 1997 owed a great deal to his ability to broaden the appeal of the party, appealing to middle-class voters, as well as Labour's traditional working-class base. This was symbolised by the dropping of its historic commitment to the public ownership of industry in 1995.

However, it is still the case that voters in the highest classes are more likely to vote Conservative than Labour. The reverse is true in the lowest occupational groups. There is also a link between class and patterns of turnout at general elections. Members of the electorate who have more at stake financially — through the ownership of property, savings and investments — are more inclined to vote than the poor, who may believe that the political system delivers little for them. In 2010, 76 per cent of the two highest social classes voted, compared with 57 per cent of the two lowest classes. Another indicator was the gap between those who owned their own homes (74 per cent) and those living in social housing or in the private rented sector (55 per cent).

The weakening of the class system across the UK has seen the emergence of a more diverse set of political struggles between the parties, particularly at election time. While elections from 1945 to 1992 were more or less a straight contest between Labour and the Conservatives, by 2015 the contest involved at least six key parties, all dealing with issues that crossed class lines. Then again, despite the competition between many parties during the election campaign and leadership debates, the results seemed to show a emergence of the Conservative/Labour division, with 82.4% of the vote going to these two parties, the highest proportion since 1970. However, this alone does not prove the re-emergence of the class system because education, rather than class, proved to be the major factor in determining how people voted.

Partisanship and voting attachment

Party loyalty The second factor that explains the relatively stable, habitual voting patterns of the 1964–70 period is that most voters had a clear and enduring identification with a particular party. This was known as ‘partisan alignment’between voting and party identification). For instance, during 1964–66, 90 per cent of voters claimed to identify with a party, overwhelmingly with Labour or the Conservatives. What is more, many voters (44 per cent in 1964) saw themselves as ‘very strong’ identifiers with a party. Nevertheless, like social class, party loyalty has declined markedly since the 1970s, in this case through a process of ‘partisan dealignment. This has been most marked in relation to the strength of party identification. By 2005, a mere 10 per cent of voters claimed to be ‘very strong’ party identifiers, with only 9 per cent identifying very strongly with the Conservative or Labour parties.

Another feature of the last third of the 20th century, and the early years of the 21st, has been partisan dealignment. This is a decline in the attachment felt by many voters to one of the two major parties. In the past this loyalty had been instilled by family tradition and the influence of the workplace and local community. These bonds were weakened as people became less likely to work in the same industry for their whole lives; improving education reinforced this process.

More people have become floating, or swing voters, who do not identify with a particular party and are open to persuasion at each election. In part this is the result of a growing sense of disillusion and apathy: a loss of confidence in the capacity of politics and politicians to solve problems and make a difference. The size of the core vote for the Conservatives and Labour — the section of the electorate who can be relied upon to support one of these two large parties — has diminished. In 1979, 83 per cent of the electorate cast their votes for Labour and the Conservatives. By 1997 this had fallen to 75 per cent, and to 67 per cent by 2010.