For years, politicians have competed to win over voters in Middle England marginal constituencies, detailing the needs and preferences of the ‘Mondeo Man’ and ‘Worcester Woman’. And when they do talk about working-class voters, they tend to mean the traditional working class, which is a relatively small part of the population.
But structural changes to the British economy over the past 40 years have created a new working class. It is made up of people living on low to middle incomes, likely to be working in service sector jobs such as catering, social care or retail. Many of them will not define themselves primarily through their work at all. It is multi-ethnic and diverse.
Even today, more people will say themselves that they are working class than say they are middle class, despite years of politicians focussing on middle class and ‘aspirational’ voters.
There is still a sizable working class in Britain today, but it has changed, and politics has failed to change with it. Those voters are much more likely not to feel represented by any of the political parties than those who are better off. Over time, support for Labour amongst working-class voters has declined, while support for the Conservatives has increased.
In 2017, the Conservatives had one of their best showings amongst working-class voters, and while Theresa May’s pitch to the working class was not enough to secure those seats, a more sustained campaign could pay off next time around. And it is difficult to see how Labour can win a majority without a significant shift towards this new working class.
The vote to leave the European Union should have acted as a wake-up call to politicians to the fact that many people, particularly those on lower incomes, do not feel well-represented in politics.
Winning the hearts, minds and votes of new working-class voters requires understanding its concerns, values, attitudes and interests.
Mainstream politics has not listened hard enough to the concerns and interests of low to middle-income voters for a long time. Our public life is dominated by the concerns of the affluent. All of the political parties are guilty of selectively listening to these voters and only hearing the things that chime with their own world views. I would urge them to stop trying to project their own opinions and listen – really listen – to the breadth of attitudes and identities that people have. Politicians should start with where the public are, rather than keep expecting the public to come to politicians.
Based on an analysis of social and political attitudes, my new book proposes policies to address the key concerns of the new working class, using the values favoured by the public: family, fairness, hard work and decency. Broadly speaking, the top concern for this new working class is money and debt; followed by health, immigration, caring responsibilities, work, and housing.
Policies such as a day one employment rights charter for all would indicate a party’s commitment to fairness and offer protection to workers. Making good work the goal of industrial strategy would demonstrate leadership on hard work. There should be a new jobs and growth deal across England, Scotland and Wales to drive inclusive regional economies, including large-scale investment, and political and economic devolution involving citizens and communities.
Just speaking for this new working class alone won’t be enough to secure power, as it takes alliances between groups to win elections. But understanding this new working class is increasingly important for electoral victory. And, on the basis of the last few elections, no political party can claim to have an effective strategy for winning its support.
But the political party that does understand this new working class, its values, attitudes and interests, stands a better chance of success at the ballot box, and ensuring that this new working class is better represented in our country’s politics.
Claire Ainsley is executive director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and author of The New Working Class: how to win hearts, minds and votes which is published by Policy Press and launches in York today.