Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A class apart?

New polling for Progress shows that working-class attitudes are not what some in the Labour party imagine them to be, writes Peter Kellner

Has the time come to reassess the influence of social class on values and voting behaviour? Fifty years ago it was plainly what mattered most to voters when deciding which party to support. As late as the 1980s, political scientists had good reason to wonder if Labour could ever win again, as its voter base shrank. The trend seemed unstoppable: manual, especially industrial, jobs disappeared, to be replaced by white-collar, office-bound jobs; and there was no reason to expect the trend to stop, let alone reverse. And indeed that trend has continued. While working-class voters outnumbered middle-class voters by two-to-one in the 1960s, middle-class voters now have a four-to-three numerical advantage.

These trends did not prevent Labour winning its two biggest landslide victories in 1997 and 2001. Tony Blair and New Labour managed to win over millions of middle-class voters. But now voices on the left are saying that Labour has strayed too far from its working-class roots, and needs to change course.

YouGov’s research for Progress throws new light on this argument. It consists of fresh analysis of aggregate data collected over the summer and early autumn, and new questions asked specifically for Progress.

Take the aggregate data first. We asked more than 15,000 people where they placed themselves on a scale from left to right. As the figures below show, middle-class voters are more likely to describe themselves as left-of-centre than working-class voters are. But they are also more likely to describe themselves as right-of-centre – the biggest difference between the classes is the number of ‘don’t knows’: one in three DE voters, but only one in eight AB voters. If we take the difference between left and right, then there is a one-point lead for the left among the middle classes, and a larger, eight-point, lead for the left among DE voters. So, in relative terms, there is a slightly greater overall tilt to the left among DE voters – but the larger truth is that social class plays only a marginal role in determining how leftwing or rightwing we are.

So much for ideology; what about policies? YouGov tested seven issues  on which social and economic progressives differ from social and economic conservatives. As far as the public as a whole is concerned, clear majorities are ‘progressive’ on three policies (putting workers on the boards of large companies, nationalising Britain’s railways, and gay marriage), clearly anti-progressive on three (stopping all immigration, ending overseas aid, and opposing higher taxes to protect public service) and divided on one (reducing unemployment benefit).

What holds for the nation as a whole also holds for Britain’s working class. On four of the seven issues, working-class and middle-class views are very similar. As for the other three, the differences will depress anyone who thinks that progressive views have a special appeal to working-class voters. While middle-class voters divide evenly on immigration, working-class voters divide more than two-to-one in favour of stopping all immigration. Likewise with overseas aid: middle-class voters divide evenly on whether to end it altogether, while working-class voters back the idea by two-to-one.

On welfare reform, the picture is a little more complex. Overall, middle-class voters divide 53-38 per cent in favour of reducing unemployment benefits, while working-class voters divide 45-40 per cent against the idea. However, when we separate skilled workers (the C2s) from those in unskilled jobs or relying on state benefits (DEs), we find that the C2s are every bit as keen on reducing benefits as the ABs and C1s; it is the DEs who come out against the idea. In short, opposition to lower benefits is greatest among those who most fear losing out, or are currently relying on state benefits – scant sign there of working-class solidarity.

Finally, we listed all seven propositions and asked people which two, if any, they would most like to see implemented. The top three are the same for both middle-class and working-class respondents: stopping all immigration, ending all overseas aid and reducing unemployment benefits. And the three ‘progressive’ policies come last among both groups. From a progressive point of view that is bad enough. But there is worse to come. If we separately average out the top three and bottom three causes, the range is fairly modest among middle-class voters: 19 per cent progressive, 28 per cent anti-progressive. But when we do the same calculation for working-class voters, the range is vast: 13 per cent progressive, 37 per cent anti-progressive.

To observe all this is not to argue for Labour to adopt a reactionary agenda. Any attempt to abandon principle and embrace the prejudices of C2 and DE voters would be counterproductive, as voters would smell, and reject, the cynicism involved. Rather, it is to point out that it is worth understanding where people actually are, instead of where we might wish them to be. Labour remains more popular with working-class than middle-class voters; but that popularity derives far more from tribe and tradition than values and ideology.


Peter Kellner is president of YouGov

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Peter Kellner

is president of YouGov


  • Hi Peter,

    Curious choice of issues to test attitudes on. In particular, it is no great surprise that ‘reactionary’ policy proposals on issues of high public concern are a greater priority than ‘progressive’ policy proposals on issues of low public concern.

    I suspect that you would find different conclusions if you picked different issues. For example, if you selected ‘universal childcare’, ‘taxing the rich in order to prevent cuts to the NHS and schools’ and ‘building affordable housing’ as the ‘progressive’ policies, then you’d find working class (and middle class) voters taking the ‘progressive’ stance, and probably that more people would like to see them implemented.

  • Don makes a good point.

    Taking question 1 while I do support our public services in general, raising Income Tax is a very blunt instrument, and would be counter productive. You suggest a problem but in my progressive and more liberal opinion you are proposing the wrong medicine, were you to rephrase the question as:

    “Increasing wealth/asset taxes in order to protect the current level of public services and reduce plans to cut spending”

    I would suggest you may well get more support from the centre…

  • I am sure that I am not the only graduate in the UK that comes from a Conserviative working class background but has left of centre opinions. Like many liberal-left people I was completely alienated by New Labour and actually voted Lib Dem in 2005. It is clear from the polls that many people like me have returned to Labour since 2010. This suggests to me that Labour should be moderately social democratic without the authoritarian tendencies of New Labour.

  • Peter Kellner’s otherwise very thoughtful piece on polling and working-class attitudes ‘A class apart?’ is marred by his closing remarks.
    ‘Any attempt to abandon principle and embrace the prejudices of C2 and DE voters would be counterproductive’ we are told. And it gets worse. The same social groups are put overwhelmingly in the ‘reactionary’ category.
    Finally we are reminded that while more working-class than middle-class people actually vote Labour (no doubt thanks in part to those ultra ‘progressive’ Guardian readers who helpfully saddled us with the present Government), we are informed that Labour’s popularity with working-class voters ‘derive far more from tribe and tradition than values and ideology’.
    Isn’t it about time we just acknowledged that there is a solid British Labour tradition that is not the offspring of social liberalism? And that that Labour tradition is not more ‘reactionary’, less value-based or any less Labour but just from a different philosophical stable inside our Labour tradition?
    Susan Elan Jones MP

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