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25 March 2024updated 26 Mar 2024 12:09pm

The Tories don’t understand the new working class

The Red Wall voters who backed the Tories in 2019 were driven by economic concerns, not cultural conservatism.

By Claire Ainsley

Lee Anderson’s recent defection to Reform UK was perceived by many Conservatives as symbolic of the fracture between their party and the voters it won for the first time in 2019. For some, the views represented by Anderson have become synonymous with working-class voters. But this mistaken characterisation of today’s working class is one of the many reasons that Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives look like they will lose the next general election.

Writing in the Telegraph, Tory MPs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger argued that Anderson’s defection is “a sad indictment of the failure of our party to listen to the voters who propelled us to victory four years ago”. This analysis promises to lock in the Tories’ strategy of pushing further and further to the right on social and cultural issues, particularly on immigration, in the mistaken belief that this will mobilise Red Wall voters who they suppose are animated by cultural conservatism.

But the Tories have misunderstood and mischaracterised today’s working class and their 2019 vote. The vast majority of those who supported the Conservatives in more working-class areas were primarily motivated by economic concerns, and they have been failed by the Tories’ economic record and serial incompetence. Today’s working-class voters are much more diverse than outdated stereotypes suggest: people living on low to middle incomes, multi-ethnic, in towns and suburbs across the UK. Those who have borne the brunt of stagnant wages and rising prices.

The cultural preferences of today’s working-class voters have been poorly served by a party that has put its own interests above those of the public. Most people won’t take kindly to the flagrant racism displayed by the Conservative donor Frank Hester, nor to Rishi Sunak’s weakness in distancing his party from it. The risk for today’s Tories is that they continually retoxify themselves as they cling to power and condemn themselves to the political wilderness. 

Parts of the political left have mischaracterised today’s working-class voters too. There is no great clamour for higher state spending as the answer to every problem rather than enterprise, nor for large-scale redistributive measures. The assumption by hard-line Remainers that Brexit voters got it “wrong” when they backed Leave showed a disrespect to working-class voters in particular. They want to know that their hard work and ability means they can get on in life, be paid and treated fairly, and expect the same rules to apply to everyone else. That they don’t is part of the reason many voted for change when they got the chance.

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Starmer’s Labour has overtly positioned itself as “Clause One” Labour: the party’s purpose is “to organise and maintain in parliament and in the country a political Labour Party” – “labour” representing working people and communities. Keir Starmer himself has talked about class more authentically than most public figures. Because he can. It’s why he doesn’t flinch when he talks about the need for security, whether on our streets or at our borders.

Take the speech he made at last year’s Labour Party conference. “I grew up working class. I’ve been fighting all my life. And I won’t stop now. I’ve felt the anxiety of a cost-of-living crisis before. And until your family can see the way out, I will fight for you. That’s my mission and we will do it.” As political mission statements go, it’s hard to beat.

Social and cultural issues do matter to people. The mistake right-wing strategists are making is borrowing tactics from the global populist right and clumsily applying them to Britain. These tactics risk being too soft for Reform UK voters and too hard for mainstream ones (of which there are many more). Labour is putting forward an alternative based on belonging, “where every contribution is equally respected,” an approach that borrows more from the successful equality movements of the past than it does from identity politics. 

But there are serious political and policy challenges concerning the pace and scale of immigration and climate change that demand viable answers. It will be vital for Labour to get the class politics right on both issues.

The central tension will be whether Labour stands for economic change or economic reassurance. Working-class voters need some of both: reassurance that Labour can be trusted with the economy and trusted with their finances, and hope that they and their families will be better off with Labour. The party is prioritising a message of reassurance. Voters are looking for stability and security and, without offering this, Labour has no chance of getting a hearing. But the restlessness that drove the Leave vote and which carried Boris Johnson into Downing Street, has not been met by either Brexit or another Tory government.

Starmer’s Labour has shown it has grasped the challenge of becoming the party of today’s working people, aided by a Conservative Party that left a vacancy open. Whether Labour lives up to that promise depends not only on how Britain’s modern working class votes at the next election, but on being the party that delivers economic security and change in their interests. Working-class voters need to see they are not pawns in someone else’s game, but are the agents of change for themselves once again.

[See also: Why Reform’s rise is deadly for the Conservatives]


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