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The New Politics of Class

The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class


Geoffrey Evans & James Tilley


Oxford: University Press, 2017

Hardcover. xiv+237 p. ISBN 978-0198755753. £30


Reviewed by Pat Thane

King’s College London




Since the 1970s it has become the conventional wisdom among British social and political scientists that class has become insignificant in British politics and society. They argue that in a culture in which class divisions were once so central, the growth of affluence and the decline of classic manual work in manufacturing have blurred class boundaries and class identities almost to insignificance. Evans and Tilley, Professors of the Sociology of Politics and of Politics at Oxford respectively, challenge this view convincingly. Gathering a wide range of, mainly quantitative, survey data they argue that profound socio-economic inequalities linked to occupation have not declined, indeed have widened since the 1970s, individuals relate these inequalities to class and most people retain, to the present, a clear identity as working or middle class.

There have been changes in the size and political presence of classes. From the 1940s to 1970s the working class was numerically predominant and a central focus of appeals to voters by the two dominant political parties, Conservatives and Labour. It has declined in size and is no longer dominated by manual workers including in manufacturing and mining, as both have declined. Rather, most low-paid, low-status workers work in services in the public and private sectors, e.g. in fast-food outlets, in telephone call-centres or as care workers. Trade unions have dwindled in size and political significance. Meanwhile the middle class has grown and become ever more complex with the growth of business management and the professions and as more people have been better educated. In the 1960s, 86% of pupils left school with no formal qualifications and only 4% of 18 to 21-year-olds attended university. Now almost 50% attend university. Despite the changes the authors document continuing high levels of class identity and awareness.

They agree that the once-high identification of class with the major political parties Conservatives with the middle and upper classes, Labour with the working class – has declined. This was never total, there have always been substantial numbers of working class Tories and middle class Labour supporters, but the identification was once taken-for-granted, including by the parties. Their main argument is for a different chronology and causation of the decline. They demonstrate convincingly that until the 1990s most working class voters still believed that Labour represented them and it won their votes. In the 1990s, as New Labour came to prominence under Tony Blair, they felt, rightly, that he focussed on winning the votes of the majority class, ‘Middle England’, and showed little interest in the working class or their needs. He announced to the 1999 Labour Party conference, ‘The class war is over’. The Conservatives felt no need to appeal to the dwindling working class and the policies of the two parties, as expressed in election manifestoes, were more consensual than they had ever been, certainly far more so than in the 1945-1974 period which some historians have believed was a time of policy consensus between the parties. The authors demonstrate how the language of class disappeared from party publications and the mass media. The economically disadvantaged were now referred to as ‘the poor’, ‘the excluded’, ‘the left-behind’, the ‘precariat’, rarely as the working class.

New Labour, like the Conservatives, rejected public ownership and supported the private market, encouraging aspiration to unprecedented high salaries at the top. New Labour also, while in government from 1997-2010, did a great deal to improve the lives of those who considered themselves working class: reversing Conservative cuts to the health and education services, introducing Britain’s first minimum wage, greatly improving work security and benefits, helping many thousands of unemployed people into work, funding children from low-income families to stay in education past the minimum leaving age, significantly reducing child poverty and introducing effective measures, through the Sure Start scheme, to improve the life-chances of children born into poverty. Their great weakness was the failure to increase the supply of low-cost housing, contributing to the current UK housing crisis, but the achievements were real. These are unmentioned by the authors who, as is common among political scientists, are stronger on details of party politics and voting than on policies. However New Labour itself made remarkably little of them in their election manifestoes. They appear to have rated the danger of alienating Middle England by exposing the extent of redistribution above the need to appeal to working class voters by demonstrating how much they were doing to help them.

Evans and Tilley demonstrate how thoroughly they alienated working class voters, which is certainly true. How did these voters respond? There was no obvious alternative party to flee to, since neither the Conservatives nor the much smaller Liberal Democrats had more to offer. Instead they stopped voting. Blair’s second victorious election, in 2001, had the lowest voter turn-out, 59.4%, since that of 1918 (58.9%) held just one month after the war ended, amid major disruption. The 2001 turn-out was below that of 1997 (77.7% overall) in every constituency and was especially low in traditional working-class heartlands, lowest of all, 34.1%, in impoverished Liverpool Riverside. Turn-outs in 2005 (when many middle-class people were turned off Labour by the Iraq war) and 2010 rose slightly but Evans and Tilley show that it was lowest among working-class voters. New Labour tactics had a certain success since more middle-class voters, especially those in the public sector and the professions, voted for them. Hence the very close result in 2010, with no overall majority leading to Britain’s first coalition government, of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, since the war.

Things changed in 2015 because working-class voters disaffected with Labour now had alternatives, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in England and Wales, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in Scotland. Another important change between 2010 and 2015, overlooked in the book like other policy issues, was that many working-class people were suffering from insecure, low-paid work and severe cuts to welfare benefits and services due to the coalition government’s severe ‘austerity’ regime. Labour’s campaign offered insufficient assurance of change. UKIP made a strong bid for working-class votes with the message that their conditions owed a lot to EU regulations and competition from EU immigrants for work, housing and services. Many voters were convinced, others voted UKIP to teach Blairite Labour a lesson. In devolved Scotland the SNP offered a more radical social programme than Labour and a strong record of improved social services against a weakly led Scottish Labour Party. Labour, which held 56 out of 72 seats in Scotland in 1997, won no seats in Scotland for the first time in its history, wrecking any chance of a majority at Westminster. In another close result, with a somewhat higher turn-out (66.3%) the Conservatives won the election with a majority of 12. It is a pity that the authors do not provide more detail about the election in Scotland, including about SNP policies and their reception to explain Labour’s wipe-out.

Things looked grim for Labour in 2015, when the book was completed. The authors added a postscript in 2016, following the EU referendum, the outcome of which seemed to confirm many of their conclusions. The turn-out was higher 72% they suggest, because many working-class voters now had a clear path to follow, convinced that they were damaged by the EU and immigration. Also, the level of education mattered, as in previous elections: better-educated people voted to remain in the EU. The outcome gave the authors little optimism for Labour’s future. UKIP tore itself apart after the referendum, so they think it might not be a long-term danger, but they believe Jeremy Corbyn too socially liberal, especially on immigration, to win back working-class voters, and that he would have difficulty appealing to an increasingly heterogeneous middle class. Their concluding words are: ‘the spiral of working-class exclusion from broader electoral politics in likely to continue’.

One wonders what another postscript on the 2017 election unforeseeable in 2016 would look like, since Corbyn and Labour performed far better than expected by the great majority of commentators. Not enough to win, with 40% of the vote on a 68.8% turnout, the highest since 1997, but enough to prevent the Conservatives gaining the clear majority Theresa May expected. A striking difference in this election was the differences between the manifestoes of the main parties when, as Evans and Tilley stress, they have been very similar since the 1990s. In 2017 Labour promised nationalisation of railways (which has majority support in polls) and other undertakings, enforcement of a higher minimum wage and increased public spending to end austerity and improve services. Some sneered that it was a ‘return to the 1970s’ but it seems to have appealed to many voters. UKIP performed very poorly, with just 1.8% of votes.

It is too soon for a detailed analysis of voting, but YouGov, the polling agency whose predictions were most accurate before the election, has since concluded that the class difference in voting was small, with Labour winning more votes than the Conservatives among semi- and unskilled workers and the unemployed by 44-41%, the Conservatives more among skilled workers, 47-40%, while Labour appealed to many middle-class voters, especially the better-educated. The Conservatives were 22% ahead among the less-educated, with only basic school-leaving qualifications or none, Labour 17% ahead among graduates. Importantly, Labour persuaded exceptional numbers of young people to vote, after decades in which their turnouts were exceptionally low. Their turnout was still lower than for all other age groups, 58% among under 25s: retired people were still most likely to vote and to vote Conservative. 61.5% of under-40s voted Labour and 66% of 18 to 19-year-olds. Women were equally divided between Labour and Conservative and more likely than men to vote Labour, by 43% to 39%; 45% of men voted Conservative. Evans and Tilley do not mention age or gender in relation to voting patterns, which is a weakness in an otherwise insightful and convincing study of past if not perhaps of future voting trends in Britain.


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