Class, Voting and Political Identities

During the 1970s the idea of class dealignment—a weakening of the link between class location and vote or party identification—gained popularity (Butler and Stokes 1969). This thesis is commonly associated, amongst other things, with the idea of ‘embourgoisement’ and was applied to affluent workers, working in car and other manufacturing employment and receiving higher wages than those working in traditional and heavy industries. Because they were better off, it was suggested that they could adopt some of the attitudes and lifestyles of the middle class (Goldthorpe et al. 1969). Certainly, in Britain there is evidence of change whereby the association of the working class with the Labour Party and the middle class with the Conservative Party no longer correlates to the same degree as it did in general elections in the 1960s (Clarke et al. 2004). As will be described at various points in this book, economic changes since the 1970s have engendered a decline in the size of the working class and the growth of professional and service classes. Thus the shrinking of the working class is one of the reasons why social democratic and left-wing political parties have adopted policy platforms designed to attract postmaterial middle-class voters. The British Labour Party purports to hold more progressive values on matters of gender equality, gay rights or mul- ticulturalism than the Conservative Party, but it was also a clear decision of the Labour Party led by Tony Blair in the 1990s to adopt the neoliberal policies of its Conservative predecessors. As Evans and Tilley (2012: 148-151) argue, the decline in class voting is more a function of party strategy than social change. As their British Election Study data indicates, in the 1964 election, 70 % of skilled manual and 66 % of semi-skilled manual workers voted Labour; in the 1997 landslide New Labour victory, the comparable figures were 67 and 69 %. The shift of the Labour Party towards the centre of the left-right ideological spectrum is a response more to the shrinking of the working class than it is to any change in the political preferences of working-class people (Evans and Tilley 2012: 139). Its effect, however, is to weaken any class distinctiveness of the political choices available to the electorate.

One of the problems with the ‘class dealignment’ thesis is its tendency to treat class in binary terms, as a division between middle class (ABC1) and working class (C2DE). As we have established, this division does not reflect the way class structures and forms of occupational stratification have changed. In any case, there have always been some exceptions to the general trend that working-class people vote Labour and middle class people Conservative. Even during the 1950s and 1960s the ability of the Conservative Party to win with an electorate where manual workers were dominant depended on the support of a substantial minority of the working class (McKenzie and Silver 1968). This partially reflected the way class interacted with ethnic, gender, local and religious identities. Hence the Conservatives won considerable support from the Protestant working class in areas with a strong Irish Catholic presence, including Liverpool and the West of Scotland (Bruce et al. 2004), or amongst so-called deferential workers in rural areas where the Conservative Party was connected to local ruling elites (Newby 1979). By the 1980s the prospect of home- ownership as a result of policies on the right to buy council houses would enable the Conservative Party to further exploit working-class support. More broadly, the work of Marxist and critical ‘race’ scholars has shown that ethnic or racial divisions within the working class were central to the development of class politics (Roediger 1991; Virdee 2014). No less of a deviation were middle-class Labour voters during the 1960s. Partly this derived from the social mobility of those whose fathers were manual workers and who carried with them political identities drawn from child?hood socialisation. In addition, the growth of the welfare state after 1945 meant that many came to depend on the state for either or both major services and employment. This included, within the middle class, a growing number of public-sector managers and professionals.

Once these changes to social classes are taken into account, the significance of class experience for politics and voting is telling. Oesch (2008), for example, identifies a division in the political loyalties of the middle classes, between professionals (NS-Sec groups 1.2 and 2) and business managers (NS-Sec groups 1.1 and 4). At the liberal end are cultural professionals who are highly educated, highly skilled and involved in creating, teaching, healing or caring occupations; at the authoritarian end are those who deal primarily with object- or document-related tasks; they include managers, self-employed tradespeople, shopkeepers and farmers. For Oesch (2008), class voting continues but, importantly, becomes increasingly dependent on the existence of ‘class-party alliances’ between two or more distinct middle- and working-class fractions (2008: 348). Thus, far from being an indicator of class decline, the tendency of salaried professionals to vote for Labour, Green and Liberal parties can be distinguished from managers, small business and low-skilled workers who are more likely to vote Conservative and for the populist right (2008: 349; see also Manza and Brooks 1999).

A further reservation on class voting, and indeed other kinds of ‘identity-based’ voting, is offered by the notion of ‘valence politics’, whereby voters are held to evaluate parties based on their short-term performance in government and management of the economy rather than according to longer-term ideological commitments. Instrumental factors and personal economic situation became more important in the context of a narrowing of the policy differences between parties. Along with more widespread media coverage, including televised debates between party leaders in the weeks before major elections, perceptions of leadership become more important (Clarke et al. 2004). Valence issues are often counterpoised to class identity as a basis for explaining voting. But much of what we understand by valence politics continues to revolve around economic issues, and it is difficult to see how evaluations of one’s personal economic situation should not in itself be regarded as a class issue. Thus Evans and Andersen (2006) argue that voters view the economy through the lens of their party preferences, not the other way around. Valence politics puts a serious question mark around class politics in terms of partisanship and ideology. But there remain good reasons for believing that when people evaluate parties and their leaders and survey their own personal economic situations, they do so through a frame of practical, material and, thus, class-relevant experiences.

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