Electoral sociology complicated by politics

If ‘aspirational voters’ are to be found among the lower middle class and among skilled workers rather than the already-rich and the very poorest, then the Labour MP Jon Trickett was right to pour scorn on the new Labour response to the election. Compared with 2010 Labour actually gained votes among lower middle class (C1) and skilled (C2) voters in 2015, suffered a relatively small decline in its vote among the professionals but lost more heavily among the unskilled and the poorest. The long-term picture is more complicated and bleaker but the message is not very different: Labour’s working class support has been falling away.

This sort of electoral sociology has been coming under fire from a number of directions, however. The fragmentation and re-composition classes makes generalisation more difficult and the categories used to measure social class more suspect. But historians, too, are more sceptical about the way social structure and political behaviour are to related. They are more interested in how political parties defined their audience and shaped the interests of voters than how they were supposed to have ‘reflected’ them. They have a point. More about that below, but it is worth looking at figures anyway though we only have social class data for Tories and Liberals to the 2010 election.

Compared with 1992 the big story is the collapse of the Tory share of the vote among professionals and the lower middle class from 56% and 52% respectively in 1992 to 41% and 37% in the Labour landslide of 1997, more significant than the fall in their support among workers from 38% (C1) and 30% (D/E) to 31% and 21%. By contrast Labour’s share of the vote among the higher social groups increased from 20% and 25% respectively to 31% and 39%, and this outstripped the increase in their working class vote from 41% (C2) and 50% (D/E) to 50% and 59%. This was the Blair effect and it was a winning combination. But it didn’t last. By 2010 support among the ‘middle classes’ had fallen by 3 percentage points among professionals and 10 points for the lower middle class. But support fell by 21 percentage points among skilled workers, and 19 points for the unskilled.

Even in 2015 the Tories did not recover 1992 levels of support among the middle class (IPSO MORI estimates). But by 2010 they did get back to 1992 levels of support among the skilled and unskilled working class, and in 2015, if Labour’s share of skilled worker votes improved a little, support from the poorest continued to decline. In 2015 the Tories probably won more than 1.5 million more working class votes than in 1997.

The limits of electoral sociology are apparent. Social class differences in voting are obvious; in 2010 the Tory/Labour division of the vote among A/B voters was 39/28% and among D/E voters 31/40% but the short term shifts over 10 to 15 years cannot be accounted for by social class, and even longer term shifts may be less a reflection of changing social structures than political processes. In any case, Labour should not draw simplistic conclusions either from Blairite waffle about aspiration or Trickett’s social class data. Labour cannot construct a new winning combination by finding pledges that appeal to enough voting segments; it needs to create a majority by winning opinion for a purpose.

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