British media give the impression that working class voters consider the Tories to be the party that best represents their interests. The Times proclaimed: “Working class switched to Tories.” The Sun ran with “The Tories are now the party of the working class.” The Independent went with: “Johnson’s victory was secured by the working class.” And on and on.
But the facts don’t support the notion of “Workington Man” worshipping Boris Johnson as the people’s Prime Minister.
Just three in ten voted Tory
There are 66 million people in the UK of whom just over 47 million are eligible to vote. Of that 47 million, just 32 million actually voted in the election: that’s less than half the population and just 67.3 percent of eligible voters.
Half the public identify as working class, meaning that around 23.5 million eligiblevoters are working class. If we assume that half of the 32 million people who actually voted are working class, just 16 million working class people voted. Of those, 7.6 million (or 48 percent) voted Tory. So, to recap: Out of a potential working class voting population of approximately 23.5 million, just 7.6m–or three in 10–voted Tory. Hardly a thumping endorsement from the poor.
It wasn’t as if working class people flocked to the Tories. After all, the Tories increased their vote-share by just 1.2 percent; or roughly by an additional 270,000 people. Rather, it was that Labour voters fell away, other left-leaning parties split the left-wing vote, and non-voters were repelled by both major parties.
Precisely defining “class” is not so easy. Those who “own” their house might be considered middle class because of their property asset, yet they may struggle to pay the mortgage. Others who have actually bought their house might have ended up in debt, paying off their children’s student fees, for instance. So-called middle class managers might have huge expenses (e.g., high rents in wealthy areas) and struggle as much as gig-economy workers to make ends meet in proportion to their lifestyles.
The IFS calculator suggests that half the British public earns at or below £18,500 a year, assuming a £1,000 annual council tax bill. Just 26 percent of the public earns more than £25,000 per year (based on the IFS calculator and again assuming £1,000 annual council tax). So, when the mean income of £29,400 per annum is calculated, it excludes 80 percent of the population.
According to the BBC’s class calculator, 15 percent of Britons are part of the “precariat”: renters living in deindustrialised areas working as carers, cleaners, drivers, etc. It would be accurate to include them as a subset of the broader working class. It also says that 19 percent are “emergent service workers”: renters in urban areas working as chefs, nurses, production assistants, etc.; again, working class. Finally, 14 percent are “traditional working class”: home owners who work in low-paying jobs, as cleaners, drivers, electricians; etc. Adding up these class categories comes to 49 percent, or roughly half the population, which corresponds to the percentage of people who self-identify as working class.
But why didn’t more people vote Labour?
This explains why most working people did not vote Tory. But why didn’t more vote Labour?
In 2015, Labour with its austerity-lite policies got a mere 30.4 percent of the vote-share, with the Tories doing little better, with just under 37 percent. In 2017, despite a “constructively ambiguous” Brexit policy and a leader, Jeremy Corbyn, uniquely demonised by mainstream media, Labour significantly boosted its vote-share, achieving 40 percent, just 2.4 percent less than the Tories. But this time, despite the continuation of media demonisation and Labour’s “constructively ambiguous” policy (this time in the form of Brexit neutrality), their vote-share collapsed to 32.2 percent; still better than 2015, but a disaster compared to the Tories’ 43.6 percent.
So, what happened? Seat-by-seat analysis shows that Boris Johnson motivated enough voters in Leave-voting constituencies to back the Tories. This time, Labour’s Brexit fence-sitting did not inspire enough Remain-voters to back them, despite the promise of a second referendum. The Tories convinced 74 percent of Leavers to back them, but Labour convinced a mere 49 percent of Remainers. As Labour’s vote-share declined by 7.8 percent, the LibDem’s increased by 4.2. This was not helped by so-called tactical voting websites advising voters to back LibDem candidates in Labour marginals, like Kensington and Chelsea, where the Tory, Felicity Buchan, beat Labour’s Emma Dent Coad by just 150 votes, thanks in part to a +9.1 increase in the vote-share for the LibDems in that constituency.
Fearing that Corbyn might make gains on Labour’s impressive 2017 election results, mainstream media, including broadcast media, put their blatant anti-Corbyn, pro-Johnson bias into overdrive, making it hard to discern Labour’s policies over a chorus of hostility which helped to turn him even more toxic in the minds of voters.
Breaking the bonds of solidarity
One of the consequences of Britain’s “particularly extreme form of capitalism” is the breaking of the social contract and the undermining of the kind of working class solidarity that might have put Corbyn into No. 10. Growing numbers of labourers are trapped in their own little work bubbles, disconnected from colleagues, in part due to the changing character of work, including “algorithmic management”; the lone delivery driver, the solitary cleaner, the surveillance-conscious factory worker, etc. This has led to a workplace “loneliness epidemic,” where colleagues hardly chat, let alone engage in politics.
According to the BBC class calculator, the 14 percent of “traditional working class” tend to be older and own their homes. This creates division with younger voters because home-owners typically vote Tory under the belief that doing so will protect their assets. In addition, the 19 percent of “emergent service workers” tend to work in the gig economy, where jobs are precarious and non-unionised. Younger people are notoriously less likely than older people to vote, yet younger people tend to make up the bulk of “emergent service workers.”
This is worsened by anti-trade union laws. As the UK’s “extreme form of capitalism” destroys the social contract and forces workers to become more self-reliant, the self-employment sector continues to grow; from 3.3 million (or 12 percent of the labour force) in 2001 to 4.8m (or 15 percent) in 2017. This means even less constructive engagement with colleagues.
Now in power with a thumping majority, the Tories have the potential to bring further harm to many of the people who voted for them. Labour’s best chance now is to build on the highly popular anti-austerity, pro-public ownership ideals of Corbynism but to find a way of dropping the baggage that eventually came with it. Failure to do so could see another decade of Toryism.