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.

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.

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

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Getty
Show Hide image

“Rise like lions after slumber”: why do Jeremy Corbyn and co keep reciting a 19th century poem?

How a passage from Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy became Labour’s battle cry.

“If I may, I’d like to quote one of my favourite poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Jeremy Corbyn politely suggested to a huge Glastonbury audience. The crowd of nearly 120,000 – more accustomed to the boom of headline acts than elderly men reading out romantic poetry – roared its approval.

“Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number!” he rumbled. “Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!”

The Labour leader told the crowd that this was his favourite line. It’s the final stanza of Shelley’s 1819 poem, The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre earlier that year, when a cavalry charged into a non-violent protest for the vote.

Though it was not published in Shelley’s lifetime – it was first released in 1832 – the poem has become a rallying cry for peaceful resistance. It has been recited at uprisings throughout history, from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square.

Corbyn’s turn on the Pyramid Stage was not the first time he’s used it. He recited the stanza during his closing speech on election night in Islington, and the audience began quoting along with him:


It was also used by comedian and celebrity Labour supporter Steve Coogan at a rally in Birmingham:


During Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, his ally Chris Williamson MP told a public meeting that this part of the poem should be “our battle cry” . He delivered on this the following year by reciting the poem to me in his Renault Clio while out on the campaign trail in England’s most marginal constituency (which he ended up winning).

You can hear it echoed in Labour’s campaign slogan: “For the many, not the few”.

Corbyn’s election guru, James Schneider, told the Standard at the time that “it would be a stretch” to say the slogan was taken directly from the poem, but that “Jeremy does know Shelley”. Yet even he took the time to recite the whole stanza down the phone to the journalist who was asking.

Corbyn is famously a fan of the novelist and author Ben Okri. The pair did a literary night at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank in July last year, in which the Shelley lines came up at the end of the event, as reported by Katy Balls over at the Spectator. Okri announced that he wanted to recite them, telling Corbyn and the audience:

“I want to read five lines of Shelley . . . I think there are some poems that ought to be, like you know those rock concerts, and the musician starts to sing and the whole audience knows the lines? And sings along with them? Well this ought to be one of those, and I’d like to propose that we somehow make it so that anytime someone starts with the word ‘Rise’, you know exactly what the lines are going to be.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Corbyn did at Glastonbury.

“We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known”

The former left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot loved the poem and recited the lines at demos, and Stop the War – the campaign group Corbyn supports and chaired – took a line from it as the title of its 2014 film about anti-Iraq War action, We Are Many.

So why does the Labour left rally around some lines of poetry written nearly 200 years ago?

“It’s a really appropriate poem,” says Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto, 2015). “Shelley wrote a poem about the fact that these people were protesting about a minority taking the wealth from the majority, and the majority shouldn’t allow it to happen.

“He was writing at the beginning of industrial capitalism, and protested then, and 200 years later, we’ve still got the same situation: food banks, homeless people, Grenfell Tower, more debts – that’s why it has great resonance when Corbyn quotes it.”

“Shelley said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now”

Michael Rosen, the poet and former Children’s Laureate, also describes the poignancy of Shelley’s words in Corbyn’s campaign. “You’ve got a sense of continuity,” he tells me. “Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Rosen celebrates the poem’s place in the Labour movement. “When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions... We’re making a claim on our authenticity,” he says. “Just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

Rosen, a friend of Corbyn’s, believes his speech brings a left-wing tradition alive that is often forgotten. “We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known. What’s great about Jeremy calling on it is to remind us . . . This stuff sits in old museums and libraries, gathering dust until it’s made active and live again. It’s made active and live particularly when being used in an environment like that [Glastonbury]. He was making the words come alive.”

Read more: 7 things we learned from Jeremy Corbyn on The One Show

The Masque of Anarchy’s final stanza has been recited at high-profile protests throughout history – including at the 20,000 garment workers’ strike in 1909 in New York, the student-led demo in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, anti-Poll Tax protests, and at Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring, according to Mulhallen. The way civilians were treated by the authorities in many of these protests echoes what happened at Peterloo.

So does Corbyn’s penchant for the verse mark a similar radical turning-point in our history? “It’s indicating a change in attitude that people should start thinking about redistributing the wealth again,” says Mulhallen. “People are becoming much more aware.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496