Why Are the Working Class Not Voting for Labour Like They Used To?
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
In the 2019 election, the so-called ‘red wall’ fell, meaning many Northern, industrial towns who have traditionally always voted Labour suddenly swung to the Conservatives.
Responding to the shock of how dismally Labour performed in the election, the media exploded with two main narratives to explain this:
It was Jeremy Corbyn’s fault.
It was all about Brexit.
Whilst these may have been factors in pushing people over the edge to vote Tory for the first time, the reality is that it cannot be explained away by such simple explanations. There has been a long-term process of declining working-class support for left-wing parties across Europe – here’s why.
People’s votes are decided by different issues
This is probably the most important point. For a long time, the vast majority of people’s votes were decided by which groups they belonged to. Across Europe, different societal divisions were at play with religion or living in an urban or rural area playing significant roles in some countries (hence why there are Christian Democratic parties in some countries but not in the UK). In the UK, however, our parties and our votes were decided almost entirely on economic issues/social class because the other divisions weren’t here (our main religious minority was Irish Catholics who formed an independent state). This is why voting behaviour was so clear-cut; working-class manual workers voted Labour and people in agriculture and the middle/upper class voted for the Conservatives.
"For a long time, the vast majority of people's votes were decided by which groups they belonged to."
So, what has changed? Put simply, as people have become more affluent and financially stable (since World War 2), people have gradually started putting less emphasis on traditional economic issues and instead on other, ‘new’ issues like immigration, the environment, human rights and more. This is intensified by globalisation as the deregulation of our economy in line with the EU and USA reduces national sovereignty, and arguably ignites the return of nationalism.
In countries with proportional electoral systems (e.g. Germany), this has meant that new parties have emerged who focus mainly on these ‘new’ issues. Therefore, traditional parties are facing declining support whilst new green parties and far-right parties opposed to immigration and the EU gobble up these votes. The UK’s non-proportional system, however, is not flexible enough for that to happen and instead, the traditional parties have incorporated stances on these issues into key parts of their identity. We see Labour adopting a more pro-green approach and open to immigration, whereas the Tories have been less concerned with the environment and in favour of tighter restrictions on immigration. Since British political parties’ unity is based on shared economic beliefs and not necessarily other issues, the shift towards ‘new’ issues leaves parties divided, hence the particularly prominent anti-EU faction in the Tory party.
Want to know more about the UK's voting system? See our guide.
What’s the issue here? Typically, the progressive stance on these ‘new’ issues emerges and gains traction among the middle class, triggering a socially conservative reaction from many working-class people. This is also partly because globalisation is said to produce ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and people with lower levels of education, or who are not professionals, come under the latter since they are not able to gain from the benefits of trade and mobility. This means that the working classes, as in the past, look for protection by the state but modern globalisation forces this to take a nationalist protectionist tone as well. For instance, a key argument in the Leave campaign in the run up to the 2016 EU referendum was the alleged return of sovereignty to the UK if it left the union. This narrative, however, ignored the fact that in a globalised world it is virtually impossible for a nation to have complete sovereignty.
Of course, this nationalist backlash is only a trend and does not represent everyone, but there is still a contradiction:
Exactly the people who Labour traditionally represented on economic issues, are now more likely to be swayed by a socially conservative message from the Tories.
Back in the day, the working classes were much more homogenous (i.e. they all led very similar lives), and with an economy heavily reliant on industry and factories, many people were forced to live in poor conditions in towns and cities. This had two effects which made it easier for Labour to represent them.
Firstly, there was a common hardship and struggle which the masses could unite around. Secondly, people had strong ties to the party through community involvement, trade unions and party membership.
All of these things have declined considerably as factories either move abroad or are operated increasingly by technology. The advancements in technology have proven to be a problem for the Labour Party since people aren’t connected to the party in the same way. This makes it harder for the party to sway public opinion, stay in touch with their voters’ views and people tend to vote more freely due to a lack of connection to one party.
Whilst many people in the media are prepared to refer to Northern towns as the Labour heartlands, they do so much less often with Scotland even though it was, historically, just as key. Tony Blair got into power in 1997 with 56 out of 72 Scottish seats.
Fast-forward to today however, and Labour only has 1 out 59 seats whilst the SNP has 48. This is because, under Tony Blair, Scotland was given its own Parliament with legitimate powers allowing Scottish parties like the SNP to start making progress because winning a majority within Scotland meant parties could influence Scottish affairs.
Where are the working classes?
The face of the working class has also changed. You can often find references to working class people in the media where, in reality, their conception of ‘working class’ is restricted to white, non-immigrant people in Northern towns.
Yet, as low-wage and precarious work is increasingly performed by immigrants and 28% of London is now in poverty, it seems that this is wrong and, perhaps, the red wall falling doesn’t really mean that the working class have all turned their backs on Labour.
So, is it all about Corbyn and Brexit?
Well, no! Admittedly, Brexit was important because it allowed the focus of the 2019 election to be on issues like national identity, on which Labour failed to retain its traditional voters.
So, although these may have been influential in causing such a disastrous result, in reality this transformation has long been in the making and is visible all across western Europe as well.
For more articles and resources, head to our dedicated UK Politics section.