Labour’s working class problem

18th May, 2011 3:45 pm

Class By Owen Jones / @owenjones84

There are a whole range of reasons for the British left to be disappointed with Barack Obama’s Presidency, and the US political situation is radically different from our own. Right, I got the caveats out of the way. But is there anything that Labour can learn from his historic election victory in 2008? Predictably, for a leading question, the answer is ‘yes’.

Obama was the first Democratic Presidential candidate to win a majority of the vote since Jimmy Carter narrowly won the 1976 election in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Sure, Obama rode a wave of disillusion with the utterly discredited Presidency of George Bush. But his victory owed much to a strategy of ‘expanding the electorate’: focusing on registering and getting out the votes of those traditionally less likely to vote – like African-Americans and younger voters.

If Labour is going to win the next election – which, let’s face it, is hardly in the bag – it must adopt an ‘expand the electorate’ strategy. Here’s why. According to pollsters Ipsos MORI, Labour’s support among the top social categories (the ABs) declined by just five percentage points between 1997 and 2010. But among the bottom two social categories (the C2s and DEs), a fifth went AWOL. While just half a million AB voters abandoned Labour, 1.6 million voters in each of the C2 and DE groups evaporated.

It wasn’t because these voters marched off to the right. The Tories won just a million extra votes between 1997 and 2010, and they haven’t won a general election in Britain for nearly twenty years. Some did defect to the Lib Dems; others, tragically, to the BNP. But above all, huge numbers of working-class people – who would once supported the Labour Party – have simply stopped voting. In Sweden, they call this “the sofa option”.

This has manifested itself in a growing, class-based gap in turnout at elections. In every election since 1997, turnout has declined as you go down the social scale. In 1997, 79% of ABs voted, compared to 75% of C1s, 69% of C2s and 66% of DEs. That was a 13 point gap in turnout. In 2001, the gap between the ABs and DEs had widened to 15 points; and at the 2005 election, it stood at 16 points. At the last election, it was 19 points. Just 58% of C2s and 57% of DEs opted to vote: significantly lower than 13 years earlier. The sofa option has grown in popularity among working-class voters.

In other words, those who most need their issues addressed by the political process are least likely to participate in it. For centuries, people fought for the right of all – regardless of wealth – to have the vote. But universal suffrage is now unravelling by stealth.

All polls currently show – unsurprisingly – that support for the coalition is highest among the top social category, while Labour leads among working-class voters. But while middle-class Tories are pretty likely to come out and vote, the same cannot be said for working-class Labour voters.

Unless Labour “expands the electorate” by addressing this growing crisis, it has little chance of winning another election. As Ed Miliband put it in the Labour leadership election: “Put it at its starkest, if we had enjoyed a 1997 result in 2010 just among DEs, then on a uniform swing we would have won at least 40 more seats and would still be the largest party in parliament.” Labour faced “a crisis of working-class representation”, he said.

Winning back working-class voters disillusioned by the disappointments and betrayals of the New Labour period is not straightforward. But it is Labour’s only hope for salvation. It means tackling head on issues like the crisis of affordable housing; the living standards and pay packets that were, even before the recession, stagnating while boardroom pay soared; the disappearance of secure, well-paid jobs; and the insecurities caused by flexible labour markets and a lack of rights in the workplace.

It also means reversing the take-over of the Labour Party by middle-class professionals who struggle to understand the basic concerns of working-class Britain. Labour desperately needs voices from working-class communities who think and talk like our supporters. We’ve all knocked on doors and encountered frustrated working-class Labour supporters who treat the party like an erring relative who they will support regardless; but for many others, Labour no longer looks or feels like their party.

Labour was founded to represent the interests of working-class people. Once again, it must be the party of working people. It isn’t just a question of principle. It’s a question of survival.

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1 Comment

  • The problem the Labour Party has is that the New Labour project showed an active contempt for its core working class support. Not just a passive disregard but an active contempt for the C2s, Ds and Es. The were two main areas of neglect that really stick out.
    First was a lack of an active industrial policy by New Labour to rebuild the private sector economy outside the South East of England and so provide the working class with broad based quality employment. Even at during the apex of New Labour in 2006/7 the regional economies of the North, Wales and Scotland were dominated by the public sector. The employment opportunities for the working class in these areas barely improved and was only compensated for by the introduced of a generous tax credit system that effectively subsidises low wages.
    Second New Labour too often ignored the small “c” conservative social and cultural values of their core voters concerning issues such as family, patriotism and concerns over mass immigration. Too often the concerns of the core vote were ignored in favour of the noisey but unrepresentative priorities of ideological special interests within the elite of the Labour Party.
    Basically New Labour failed to serve of economics or social priorities of its working class supporters. Generous levels of public spending and benefits helped relieve some issues but they didn’t offer a long term solution to their economic problems. This was compounded by a complete cultural disconnect on social and cultural issues. Immigration remains the biggest failing in that area. It is going to be hard for Labour to get those working class supporters back.


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