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How Labour Lost the Working-Class

New research suggests that, in the 2019 election, more low-income voters backed the Tories than Labour for the first time. The party's decision to side with the establishment over Brexit was the final straw.

A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that in the 2019 election more low-income voters backed the Conservatives than Labour for the first time ever. The Conservatives were, in fact, more popular with low-income voters than they were with wealthier ones. 

There is one glaringly obvious reason for this: Brexit. Pro-Remain groups spending a lot of time – and money – attempting to convince others on the Left that the only people who voted Leave were posh old homeowners nostalgic for the days of empire. While such voters were undoubtedly a powerful element in the Leave coalition, they could never have won the referendum on their own. 

The Leave campaign succeeded because it tapped into the same anti-establishment energy that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to leader of the Labour Party in 2015 – and nearly into Downing Street in 2017. During the election, I spoke to voters up and down the country who expressed the same sentiment: with the entire British establishment united behind Remain, they finally had a chance to kick back at a political class they felt had cheated their communities over many years.

Remainers were fond of telling these voters how nonsensical this perspective was but, shockingly, that didn’t seem to change many minds. By 2019, even voters who hadn’t strongly favoured Leave in 2016 were appalled at the idea of holding another divisive referendum – and the condescending attitude of Remainers telling voters that they ‘didn’t know what they were voting for’ didn’t help. 

The vote to leave the European Union and the election of Jeremy Corbyn are often placed in the same category of ‘populist backlash’ by members of the liberal commentariat trying to understand why voters turned against the sensible, middle-of-the-road politics of the pre-financial crisis era. The disdain these people show for ‘populism’ notwithstanding, there is an element of truth to the comparison. 

The economic malaise into which the British economy – and many other advanced economies – sank in the wake of the financial crisis pulled the rug out from underneath those who had banked on the idea that the promises of the bubble economy would come true. House prices would rise forever, employment would continue growing and living standards would continue rising. We had, after all, overcome boom and bust. 

In the years that followed, the realisation slowly dawned on many people that this promise had been a fantasy. Aware that if politics remained the same things would be unlikely to get better – and would in fact be likely to get worse – these voters sought out ways to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Voting Labour was not one of the options they considered to do so.

In part, this was the result of the insipid politics adopted by successive Labour leaders in the post-crisis era, but it was also a reflection of a much longer-standing trend. Ever since 1997, low-income voters have been deserting the Labour Party at each election – but rather than voting Tory, they have simply dropped out of the electorate altogether. 

As Geoff Evans and James Tilley show in their book The New Politics of Class, prior to 1997 there were fewer non-voters, and whether one voted was not correlated with social class. In every election since, the relationship between voting status and class has strengthened as working-class voters have dropped out of the electorate – the natural result of a New Labour electoral strategy based on the idea that working-class voters had nowhere else to go. 

Brexit was the issue that finally encouraged many of these voters to re-engage with electoral politics. Many previous non-voters turned out to vote Leave and some of those same voters turned out again to support Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. But in 2019, they were disproportionately likely to vote for the Conservatives. 

The last few years suggest that whichever party can most effectively channel the anti-establishment energy simmering below the surface of our society is the party which will win elections. Most people in this country detest the British establishment. Trust in our politicians, in our media and in business is desperately low. In other words, most people don’t trust the elites who have gained a stranglehold on political and economic power in this country and used it to marginalise the most vulnerable. 

Whether the message is ‘take back control’ of our politics from the European Union, or take back control of our economy from the bosses and bankers, the only way to win a majority today is by promising to give people a sense of power over their lives. The Conservatives have won over working-class voters by making such a promise, but it won’t be long before events reveal quite how hollow Boris Johnson’s words really were.

Rather than benefitting Labour under Starmer, however, it seems likely that such a realisation will discourage many working-class people from bothering to vote again.