Skip to main content

A recent poll by YouGov produced the remarkable finding that voters broadly considered to be working-class – in social grades C2DE – have had a rapid swing from Labour to the Conservatives since the start of the year, putting the Tories ahead of Labour amongst these voters. This is consistent with the longer-term pattern, which began more than a decade ago, of the Labour Party losing support amongst working-class voters, and the Conservatives steadily picking up these votes.

Despite this shift in political support, neither party appears to have a sustained strategy for winning these voters over. When the Prime Minister, Theresa May, appealed to ‘working-class voters’ midway through the 2017 general election campaign, she was making a pitch to the traditional working-class; an important, but shrinking proportion of the electorate.

Yet what it means to be working-class in Britain today has fundamentally changed. The evolution of the economy towards the service sector means that four in every five workers are employed in the service industries. Many of those jobs will be low-waged, making it hard for families to achieve a decent standard of living, particularly as costs rise. There is still a sizable working-class, but it has changed, and arguably political parties have failed to adapt quickly enough.

This new working-class is made up of people living on low- to middle-incomes, employed as cleaners, cooks, bar workers, shop assistants, classroom assistants, carers, and so on. It is multi-ethnic and much more diverse than the traditional working-class. It is more likely to be female. And voters in this new working-class are much more likely to say no political party represents them than voters on higher incomes.

My new book set out to find out how to win over this new working-class, exploring their values and social and political attitudes on the issues that matter to them most. Their key concerns were money and debt; followed by health, immigration, caring for someone, work, and housing. Using the data produced by Policy Exchange to make the case for focussing on the ‘just about managing’ classes, I propose policies based on the values that are most important to the public, including this new working-class: family, fairness, hard work and decency.

Policies such as a day one employment rights charter for all – so that all workers have basic rights like sick pay would indicate a party’s commitment to fairness and offer protection to workers. Making good work the goal of industrial strategy, with greater political and economic devolution, would demonstrate a party’s leadership on hard work. A statutory Family Test for new policies, backed up by state-backed guarantees on health and preschool education, would signal that a party stood by families. And a modern set of British values to tackle discrimination and promote social integration would show to voters that it stood for decency.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Bright Blue have just produced a series of essays by parliamentarians from across the political spectrum aimed at tackling the ‘burning injustices’ that Theresa May identified on the steps of Downing Street as she became Prime Minister two years ago. There is a palpable sense amongst MPs that these ambitions should be the driving force of her premiership, but important social reform is completely constrained by the dominance of the Brexit negotiations. Yet addressing the concerns of low- to middle-income voters is now not simply an issue of social justice, but a political necessity.

Despite the polling data, the recent local election results show little sign that either of the major UK parties have understood this new working-class. Yet, as Will Tanner, former adviser to Theresa May and newly-announced Director of Onward, said: “The party that stands up for this long-neglected group, and reflects their values, will win the next election.”

To be effective in winning over the votes of new working-class voters, parties need to really listen to their concerns and interests, understand the diversity of its groupings, and ensure that their voices are heard in their policy-making.

Claire Ainsley’s new book is Executive Director of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Her book ‘The New Working Class: how to win hearts, minds and votes’, is published by Policy Press May 2018, it is written in a personal capacity.

JRF and Bright Blue published ‘Burning Britain? Tackling ‘burning injustices’ that blight Britain’ on 8 May 2018.