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The working class vote is up for grabs - will it be Labour or the Tories that seizes it?

Both parties have to make clear how they would cut the cost of living, increase the supply of housing and help low-paid workers.

Ed Miliband speaks to reporters in Corby.
Ed Miliband speaks to reporters after Labour candidate Andy Sawford won the Corby by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.

We are increasingly becoming a working class nation. That is the view of almost two-thirds of the British public according to a report by the think-tank, British Future. Even a third of professionals describe themselves as working class.

Some commentators, such as Gaby Hinsliff, argue that this shift in class identity presents a big opportunity for the Labour Party. It’s not quite as simple as that. Both political parties have had major problems in reaching out to working class voters in recent years. Labour has become more and more a middle class party in terms of membership, ideas and voter base and the Tories have long struggled to win over blue collar voters. If Brits are feeling more proletarian, both political parties clearly need to up their game when it comes to appealing to ordinary working people.

It’s a sad truth that many working class voters have simply stopped voting altogether. In 1992, 75 per cent of the skilled working class and 77 of unskilled working class people voted. By 2010, that had plummeted to 58 per cent and 57 per cent respectively. And the 'class gap' in voting has become a chasm. In 1992, the voting gap between the proportion of professionals who voted and the skilled working class who voted was eight per cent. By 2010, this gap had increased to 18 per cent.

And our research has shown that more and more voters are feeling alienated from politicians of all parties. Eighty one per cent of voters believe that "politicians don’t understand the real world at all." Ed Miliband has a point when he argues that "Parliament is too middle class and doesn’t have the diversity that it needs to have." Recent research by Phil Cowley found that voters wanted to see more working class MPs and more MPs from their local area. A feeling that the 'political class' are separate from and don’t understand the concerns of ordinary working people can only increase a sense of disengagement.

There’s also substantial evidence that Labour, in particular, has lost the base and the sense of affection it may once have had among working class voters. In a recent YouGov survey, 53 per cent of people said that Labour used to care about "people like me", whereas only 30 per cent think the same today. Labour’s vote at the last election also haemorrhaged amongst the skilled working class to a mere 29 per cent, compared with Tony Blair in his first two elections who won over more than half of these voters.

It’s striking how much Labour’s membership has also reflected this received drift from working class roots. At the party's top table, it is much more likely that you'll be hearing the views of Islington coffee houses than the working men's clubs of County Durham.

In the 2010 Labour leadership election, the Blaenau Gwent Labour Party, once represented by Labour giants Nye Bevan and Michael Foot, distributed 310 ballot papers. Barnsley Central sent out 221. By contrast, Islington North CLP sent out 991 papers and Hampstead sent out 931 - a stark illustration of how the balance of power in Labour has moved from working to middle class areas and from north to south. As the Labour Party has become 'lattefied' it's views have gradually moved out of sympathy with voters in working class areas, on issues ranging from the EU to housing and crime and justice.

Indeed, a recent poll showed that middle class people were much more likely to describe themselves as "left of centre" than working class voters. Working class voters believe in aspiration – but this doesn’t mean earning megabucks, instead it’s seen as getting on in their job, improving their area, hoping for the best for their family, for example – but are also keen to ensure economic security. It’s pretty clear that neither party has been able to successfully balance aspiration and security in recent years.

These factors, combined with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in the north and the midlands mean that the working class vote is up for grabs in a way that it hasn’t been for generations. Given that the next election will be fought in blue collar constituencies in these regions, the party that makes the most compelling appeal to working class voters is probably going to be the one that grabs the big political prize. And it’s not inevitable that this is going to be Labour, which has to take substantial steps to restore the enthusiasm of its working class vote. Both parties have to make clear how they would cut the cost of living, increase the supply of housing and help low-paid workers.

This also represents the first real Conservative opportunity for decades to make inroads in working class areas. But the challenge for the Tories in working class areas is greater, with 64 per cent of voters thinking that they are "the party of the rich, not ordinary people". Tories will be mindful of Mitt Romney’s experience in the USA, where a belief that he didn’t understand "people like me" proved his Achilles heel.

If the Conservatives want to be seen as the party of working people, they need more people from modest backgrounds on the front line and they also have to show that they can represent the shift worker, the cleaner and the checkout worker, as well as the small businessman. They also need to show that they have a vision of job creation and renewal in towns and cities still recovering from deindustrialisation. The party needs explicitly and repeatedly to present policies such as education reform as being designed not to help the well-heeled but, instead, to lift up the standard of education in working class areas - helping poorer children to make the most of their potential.

The Tories also need to tackle some preconceptions. Top Conservatives ought to remember that trade union members and public sector workers are valuable members of society and hard working contributors to the economy, as well as being potential voters. They should remember that one man's "excessive regulation" can be a working man or woman's right to spend time with their family.

But international evidence makes it clear that working class voting behaviour can change. For decades in Sweden, the Social Democrats were seen as the natural home for working class voters. Over the past decade, the centre-right Moderate Party has positioned itself as the workers' party - a home for hard working people with policies to match. Since 2006, the party has been in government - winning the votes of many working class Swedes who would previously have voted Social Democrat. In every other English speaking country, the centre-right has proved successful at winning over the majority of white, working class voters. There is no reason why the Conservatives cannot follow suit.

Given that more people describe themselves as working class than has been the case for decades, winning the working class vote is vital for politicians. With the right language, policies and people, both political parties have the potential of claiming this prize and becoming the party of choice for working class voters.