Social class has become less important as an influence upon voting behaviour. This is one under-appreciated feature of last week’s election.
Lord Ashcroft’s polls show that the social class AB split 43%-34% between the Tories and Labour. That meant Corbyn’s Labour got a higher share of the well-off’s vote than Blair’s Labour got in 1997, when it got 31%. Labour’s wins in Kensington and Canterbury are the most spectacular manifestations of this.
The difference between Blair and Corbyn is that Blair did far better than Corbyn among the working class. The DE group split 59-21 for Labour in 1997 but only 45-33 in 2017.
This seems to conflict with decades of conventional wisdom. A so-called “hard left” Labour leader has had support from a wider class base than a so-called “modernizer” who consciously tried for such classless support.
How can this be? I’d suggest three reasons.
One is Brexit. The ABs voted 57-43 for Remain, whereas the DEs went 64-36 for Leave. May’s hard Brexit thus alienated some ABs, and made Labour’s softer stand on Brexit more attractive.
Secondly, Corbyn’s domestic policy was one of universalism more than sectarian class war. His offer of free childcare and the abolition of university fees appealed to many ABs. By contrast, his failure to promise to raise working tax credits meant he was offering relatively little to the DEs. John Rentoul has a point that Corbyn was insufficiently radical – but therein perhaps lay some of his appeal.
Thirdly, Corbyn’s promise to tax the very rich appealed to those ABs (the majority) earning less than £80,000. Reference group theory implies that people compare themselves with those like themselves. So, someone on say £50,000 a year might ask: “why is that idiot earning twice as much as me when he’s no smarter?” Many ABs, I suspect, are more aware than the DEs that many of the very rich are incompetent rent-seekers rather than the “wealth creators” of Tory myth. A DE voter, on the other hand, has almost no contact with the rich but is instead irritated by benefit claimants.
This tendency is exacerbated by another – that, as Rick said, the middle classes aren’t as posh as they used to be. Many work long hours in unfulfilling jobs for oppressive bosses with no hope of buying a decent house. For them, Corbynite talk of rent controls and housebuilding was an attractive offer relative to a Tory party than was offering nothing.
It’s in this context that class still matters. Yes, the Tory-Labour split is no longer a class split. But this is because the class basis of Toryism has diminished. What we’ve seen in recent years is a hollowing out of the middle class. A rising take by the top 1% has been accompanied by the middlingly rich becoming less bourgeois: their incomes have fallen relative to the worst off, as I suspect, have their working conditions. This has made ABs more amenable to Labour.
In this sense, perhaps the Tories have a deeper problem than merely yet another laughably inept leader. Their problem is that they no longer articulate the interests of the class they once did, because that class has changed. Ironically, they have become the victims of the inequality that has seen the top 1% (or perhaps 0.1%) pull away from the rest of us.