‘The death of working class political participation is due to parties, not voters’

16 February 2017

A new book, ‘The New Politics of Class: The political exclusion of the British working class’, says while class voting dominated British party politics for much of the post war period, this voting pattern has fundamentally changed. This is despite class-based inequalities and class differences in political attitudes remaining almost entirely static over time. It finds that many working class voters no longer identify the Labour party as ‘their’ party since its party policies, and the politicians’ rhetoric and social background, changed radically in the 1990s. This has led to a situation in 2015 in which Labour did better among middle class professional voters than among manual working class voters.

The Labour party’s strategy to decouple itself from traditional class issues has led some of its former core working class base to endorse new parties, most notably UKIP. But more importantly, the consequence is that the working class electorate is increasingly not voting at all. In 2015 over half of people with low levels of education in working class jobs didn’t vote. The comparable figure for degree-educated professionals was slightly over 10 per cent. Oxford professors and the book authors Geoff Evans and James Tilley conclude that Labour will find it hard to regain its previously ‘core’ working class support. Jeremy Corbyn and what he represents is unlikely to win back the vote or change the pattern of class voting, says the book.

The book produces evidence showing that class differences in voter attitudes have remained the same over time, but that the parties changed during the 1990s in a number of ways. Most obviously this is in terms of policy positions. Labour class voting was based on left-wing policies appealing to left-wing working class voters, but there was a sharp change in policy in the 1990s under Blair. The perceptions of the parties are also important, however, as the occupational background of Labour MPs changed from the late 1980s onwards, and the language used by Labour politicians in the 1990s stopped being about ‘workers’ and started being about ‘families’, the perceptions of Labour as a middle class party grew. The three consequences were the increase in the middle classes voting Labour, the increase in the working class voting for new parties like UKIP and, inevitably, the rise of non-voting among the working class.

Interestingly, however, the book also finds that in the case of the EU referendum, political participation went up the most among the working class. The EU referendum gave people an opportunity to choose between Leave and Remain rather than the constrained options offered by the main political parties in recent general elections, says the book. Yet without channels for such direct democracy, the book remarks it is difficult to see how the pattern of working class disengagement from party politics can be reversed.

Geoff Evans, Professor in the Sociology of Politics from the University of Oxford, concludes: ‘The ongoing convulsions within the Labour party are between the liberal left and the Blairite right, neither of which provide much likelihood of representing real choices for the working class because they both have mixed appeal.’

James Tilley, Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford, adds: ‘The party’s support for Remain in the EU referendum, low-key though it was, will have done little to endear it to its residual working class base. However, UKIP too has its problems as a party with a one issue goal; it has also been beset by its own internal struggles that threaten to tear it apart. Despite many working class voters finding themselves on the winning side of the EU referendum, the spiral of working class exclusion from broader electoral politics is likely to continue.’

For more information, contact the University of Oxford News Office on +44 (0)1865 280534 or email: news.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

Alternatively, email Geoffrey.evans@nuffield.ox.ac.uk or james.tilley@politics.ox.ac.uk

Notes for Editors:

The book, ‘The New Politics of Class: The political exclusion of the British working class’, is published by Oxford University Press.  To request a copy of the book, email: politics.uk@oup.com