This piece by Geoff Evans and Matthew Blayney on class and voting behaviour is taken from our recent report “The state of public opinion: 2023”. Read the full report here.
Over many decades, the primary division in British politics was between working class support for Labour and middle-class support for the Conservatives. The source of this opposition was, to a considerable degree, differing views on economic matters: inequality, hardship, strikes, unemployment, and redistribution provided the axes along which the main classes and main parties were divided. However, after Tony Blair’s re-branded ‘New Labour’ consciously shifted towards the centre and widened its appeal beyond the traditional working class, this cleavage was greatly weakened.
The years immediately following the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum saw this decline accentuated. By the 2019 election, there was a reversal in the traditional pattern of class voting exemplified by the breaching of ‘red wall’ traditionally Labour seats across the North and Midlands by the Conservatives.
Brexit was the dominant issue in the post-referendum era, and was central to the re-shaping of class voting that took place then. Since the completion of the UK’s exit from the European Union and the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the economy has once more become the major political concern: the cost-of-living crisis is now the public’s priority.
This resurgence leaves the potential for a return to traditional economic class voting, with working class 2019 Conservative voters potentially swinging back to Labour. The chart below examines this idea by showing the percentage-point Conservative lead in four occupational classes in 2015, 2019 and 2023; a middle class consisting of managerial and professional occupations (46.7% of the sample), an intermediate class of routine white-collar workers (22.5%), a class of small business owners and the self-employed (6.4%), and a working class of routine and semi routine workers, including lower supervisory and technical occupations (24.5%).
There was an inversion of the pattern of class voting between 2015 and 2019. The working class switched from Labour to Conservative. Indeed, the Conservatives’ lead in 2019 among the working class was larger than that for all others except for the relatively small number of self-employed workers, who have always provided the core of their support.
Yet by 2023, whilst Labour’s popularity relative to the Conservatives has increased substantially among all classes, the realignment observed in 2019 has not been fully reversed. Other than the self-employed, in 2023 the working class is still – albeit with a reduced margin – the least likely to support Labour.
This is not, however, down to a simple switch from Labour to the Conservatives among the working classes. Instead, most change in party support since 2019 has resulted from people switching away from the Conservatives. The following chart uses BES panel data to track the 2023 voting intentions of people who voted Conservative in 2019 in the four classes discussed. It shows that the Conservatives have retained more of their middle-class supporters than those in other classes, particularly the working class. Yet it also shows that of those who no longer support the Conservatives, Reform UK is a clearly more popular choice than Labour amongst both self-employed and working classes. Not only are the working class 50% more likely to switch to Reform than Labour, they are more likely than other classes to intend not to vote at all, echoing the trend towards higher rates of working class abstention identified in previous years.
In spite of the resurgence of the economy as the most important issue for voters, we have not seen a return to the traditional pattern of class voting. The Conservatives have lost their lead not only among the working class, but also among the other main classes. Similarly, while Labour has regained its lead among the working class, their lead here is the smallest (with the exception as noted above, of the small self-employed class). Most of the working class who have defected from the Conservatives since 2019 have not gone to Labour. Tellingly, 64% of those 2019 working class Conservative voters who switched to Reform said immigration is the most important issue facing the country in 2023, compared to only 9% in the general population (and only 30% of 2019 working class Conservatives as a whole).
Despite the lack of a shift back to traditional ‘class based’ voting patterns, based on current voting intentions, significant loss of Conservative support among the working class means much of the ‘red wall’ looks set to return to Labour. Of the 31 Northern and Midlands ‘red wall’ seats which flipped from Labour to Conservative between 2015 and 2019, only three still maintain a Conservative lead in 2023 BES panel data.
There is not, however, a return to pre-2015 levels of Labour support. For the relatively more working class Northern and Midlands ‘red wall’ seats, this would suggest that, though Labour may win seats back at the next election due to their surge in popularity nationally, they will continue to be tightly contested in future elections. The high level of ‘don’t knows’ recorded among 2019 Conservative voters leaves open the possibility that the Conservatives might recapture the votes of a substantial proportion of their ‘lost’ electorate.
Given that voters clearly care about the economy and living costs, the failure of the classes to realign along a more traditional left-right axis may well reflect the inability of either of the main parties to successfully present strong policy platforms on economic issues and, in particular, for Labour to present a convincing economic programme to working class voters. Additionally, the higher rates of defection from the Conservatives to Reform among the working class and self-employed suggest immigration and related matters still matter for some. The difficulty for the Conservatives here would appear to be one of not being effective enough in dealing with these concerns leading to them to be outflanked on the right.
By Professor Geoff Evans, Professor of Sociology, and Matthew Blayney, DPhil student, University of Oxford.