James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
This is my last regular column on working-class voters. I feel strongly these voters ought to be the Conservatives’ long-term core, but far too little progress has been made since 2019 to make this viable – and it’s unlikely the Party will prioritise working-class voters to the extent necessary to bring this about.
With this in mind, here are some final general observations on the Party’s relationship with the English working-class.
1) Border control earned the Party a hearing
The Conservatives made such recent progress with working-class voters because they appeared to have “dealt with” the issue of border control. By “getting Brexit done” – and introducing a points-based immigration system – the Party earned a hearing from many working-class voters for the first time.
Nobody should under-estimate the impact of recent stories: of the continued arrival of “small boats”; of record immigration figures; of the census data. All of a sudden, border control and immigration no longer seem “dealt with”.
It’s a certainty many working-class voters will be so angry with the Party’s failure to “take back control” they’ll transfer their votes to Nigel Farage (or equivalent). It’s the biggest immediate threat to the Party’s reputation.
2) Levelling-up showed the Party cared
Just as border control showed working-class voters the Conservatives could be trusted, so “levelling-up” showed Conservatives cared about them. It also gave the Party a way-in to talk about two of the most important “micro” issues the public care most about: anti-social behaviour and high streets.
In truth, most working-class voters in areas the Party pledged to level-up were sceptical it would ever happen; many also doubted the merits of apparently making their hometowns more like the hyper-prosperous South East (where life appears frenetic, expensive and transactional). But it did send a message – when it finally began to cut through a year ago – the Conservatives cared about their daily lives.
This was really important for a Party seen to stand for the Southern posh and “big business”. In the last six months, working-class voters have seen the policy de-prioritised. This has not gone unnoticed.
3) Basic “quality of life” is going to become a defining theme
For working-class voters particularly, there’s a very strong sense the country is creaking; nothing seems to be working anymore.
It’s not just the strikes. There are terrible backlogs in the NHS; it’s hard to drive around and park; high streets are in decline; pubs and restaurants are closing; shortages in shops come and go; anti-social behaviour is rampant; surprising numbers of provincial hotels are booked out because of a broken asylum system; the list goes on.
In short, it’s getting hard to enjoy a decent quality of life. This is going to become a defining political theme in the next few years.
4) The coalition was never as precarious as many feared
It was often said the coalition the Conservatives established was unsustainable. At its most basic, apparently because working-class voters wanted a bigger state and higher taxes on the rich and big business, while the Southern posh wanted Thatcherism.
This was way over-done. What bound this group together was they all work and are therefore reliant on a salary and ultimately a stable economy. From the mid-2000s, Labour’s support came increasingly from public sector and third sector workers, and those on welfare; while the Conservatives’ support came to rely on private sector workers and retired workers.
As such, the Conservatives increasingly became a “workers’ party” (not a cliché in this case) with working-class voters at the heart of their electorate. This ought to have been a relatively cohesive group to speak to; the Party somehow never managed to make this work.
5) Culture wars and class politics are mostly lost on them
Both the Conservatives and Labour risk pitching badly to working-class voters. Conservatives often wrongly think they’re obsessed with culture: the cultural aspects of immigration, the supposed onslaught of “wokery”, and so on. On immigration, working-class voters care about border control, not culture.
While I suspect it’ll change in a few years, the culture wars raging in the media and politics (particularly on gender identity) have almost completely passed them by.
Labour politicians often wrongly think working-class voters are driven by envy and class-based hostility. This is just plain wrong. Most working-class voters prize fairness so highly they respond badly to action that appears to unreasonably target any groups, even the posh. And most want their children to succeed financially and want them to enjoy the benefits this brings.
This is why Labour’s attacks on private schools are ultimately pointless; working-class voters just won’t respond to what looks like petty politics.
6) Both parties should study the 2019 manifesto
The 2019 manifesto was perfectly pitched for working-class voters and those seeking to attract them should study it closely. Establish border control; introduce an Australian points system; protect the NHS; fund the police; boost provincial England.
Conservative politicians and strategists tire easily and many seem to have written off the manifesto as a relic of the past, as if it somehow failed. Wrong. It remains the perfect platform for progress.
7) No credible provincial Conservative leader has emerged
It’s odd no Conservative politician emerged to give full voice to the Conservatives’ working-class base; and it’s odd no one credibly challenged for the leadership on this basis. Ben Houchen has come closest to articulating an authentically provincial vision, but from outside the Parliamentary Party (for now, at least).
8) The Party has badly messed up by ignoring small businesses
In 2019, the Conservatives won many seats where they had no infrastructure to speak of; they had no activists, no donors, and so on; they just had an MP.
It was blindingly obvious the only way to build an infrastructure would be to appeal to the self-employed and business owners – people who might be small-c conservative and who might have the standing and resources to help develop the local Party.
From what I can see, this hasn’t happened; furthermore, the policies taken at a national level have clobbered exactly these people (through changes to dividends, corporation tax, and VAT to name just three).
9) Labour still struggles with working-class voters
Certainly until recently, the Conservatives’ 2019 working-class voters were peeling away to the “don’t know” column rather than to Labour.
They remain sceptical of Starmer – who is unable to throw off his reputation as a moaner, established during the Covid crisis – and they remain unsure Labour is sufficiently mainstream on the one cultural issue they care about: patriotism. Starmer is making some progress, but it’s slow.
10) From “just about managing” to a “New Majority”
You’ll hopefully forgive the self-indulgence here, but for those interested in reading about the Conservative relationship with working-class voters it’s worth reading the two papers that really mark the beginning of my thinking on this subject, and the culmination of it.