London Globalist: The great political switch – How the Conservatives became the party of the working class

This article was first published on The London Globalist.

British politics appears to be in a state of perpetual insanity. The pre-Brexit days are a very distant memory and recalling a time when politicians talked about things other than Europe seems to require rose-tinted spectacles. All the rapturous drama of recent months has made daily life in Westminster seem like some elaborate HBO political thriller, complete with plot twists, flagrant rhetoric and constant predictions of impending doom. As gripping as the action might be, it has carefully concealed a fundamental and quite revolutionary transformation just beneath the surface, which will change the way our politics works for decades to come.

Class allegiance in a party-political system used to be very simple. Union-backed Labour attracted workers with their promises of a bigger state that works for the little guy. Bog-standard socialism — raising taxes on those greedy high-earners to pay for more free public services — is precisely what Jim from the factory wanted to hear. Equally, the Conservatives used the funding they got from businesspeople to campaign for fiscal sensibility and, broadly, maintaining the status quo, which won the vote of those with something to lose. On an ideological level, the left-right divide between the working and middle classes makes perfect sense.

Since those simple days, the world of political ideology has multiplied in its complexity. Analysis by the brilliant Thomas Piketty casts new light on the growing nuances of British politics. In the general election of October 1974, the Conservative vote among the working class sat at 22 per cent; by 2017, that figure had leapt to 41 per cent. A subsequent YouGov poll found that the Conservatives now command a higher share of the working class vote (44 per cent) than Labour (42 per cent). Ipsos Mori analysis of the election found that “the middle classes swung to Labour, while working classes swung to Conservatives”.

The trend is clear. Though class is a weaker vote predictor today than it has been historically, a definite switch is discernible. The less well-off are becoming rapidly more conservative whilst their comparatively richer bosses veer to the left. The latter point is especially obvious in party membership demographics: an enormous 77 per cent of Labour members are middle-class (compared to 54 per cent of the population as a whole).

The root of this change lies in the very nature of politics. In the past, we tended to view the big issues in our lives through a Marxian lens; that is, in terms of economics and, inevitably, class. As The Thick Of It’s Olly Reeder delicately puts it, political discourse was a case of “the chavs and chav-nots”. Today, we seem to be much more concerned with socio-cultural debates than economic ones. Immigration matters more than ever, and hot-button social issues continue to climb in our priorities. The social conservatism of the working class has therefore shunted them to the right, and the champagne socialism relished by the bourgeoisie has put them firmly out of touch with the blue-collar masses.

Going forward, the less well-off are likely to become more engaged with the ideology of freedom. By allowing social and cultural factors to compel them to vote for the right, the working class is perhaps inadvertently embracing individuality in the form of a smaller state, commercial competition, lower taxes and free markets. This offers the Conservative party a golden opportunity to rebrand for this new age.

The Tories are already seen as fiscally frugal, but the fact that those lower down the food chain are now voting for them in their droves proffers the party the perfect chance to transform its public image. The Conservative party could seek to present itself as the party of opportunity, juxtaposing its vision of growth-driven capitalism and optimistic long-term economics with the left, who could be cast quite effectively as nanny state-obsessives wishing to keep everything under the purview of the government and trapping low earners in a cycle of dependency. Right-leaning arguments for workers’ interests represent a markedly underexplored policy area; the Conservatives would do very well to capitalise on that gap in public discourse in the near future.

Whether the Conservatives will succeed in seizing this narrative is yet to be seen. Very little is certain, since we live in a political age where the time we have before the next general election could be anything between four years and four weeks. Nonetheless, the face of British politics is undergoing a dramatic transformation, and those who manage to look past the daily volcano eruptions and appreciate the tectonic plate movement beneath that makes the fiery displays possible above ground will surely emerge triumphant.

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