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Rise of the new working-class Tories

Can Boris Johnson’s Conservatives really hold on to former Labour voters in the party’s old heartlands?

Since the general election some on the left have said, both by way of consolation and with a certain element of truth, that the votes of former Labour supporters that enabled a Conservative victory were merely lent to the Tories. They did not, the argument continues, indicate a long-term shift in allegiances. Perhaps in some instances, because of the unique context of Brexit and the outgoing Labour leadership’s failure to offer a credible position on the question, that will prove to be true. However, to others – particularly those of us who witnessed the Thatcher revolution – it seemed as though a whole new generation of working-class Tories had emerged. When many of us doubted the Conservatives could win a convincing majority, it was because of our assumptions about certain tribal loyalties enduring even in what we expected would be a bad year for Labour: that they did not made it a very bad year.

Rather than these former Labour voters showing their discontent by abstaining, such was their disillusion that they chose to vote Conservative. This behaviour indicates that people in predominantly working-class constituencies were not only fed up with Labour, but believed the time had come to seek a political alternative. If the lessons of the Thatcher revolution are a guide – and I believe they are – the political shift was made because of a conviction among working-class people that the Labour Party no longer understood their lives or ideals.

It is unclear how far Labour, either in the Thatcher years or before the December election, understood those who choose to become working-class Tories, and therefore the idea of working-class Toryism. The notion has come far since the age of Disraeli and the first enfranchisement of working-class urban men after the 1867 Reform Act.

The courting of the working-class vote has continued more or less consistently since Disraeli understood the importance of having as many supporters as possible in this huge constituency. The imperialist project pursued so vehemently by Lord Salisbury was, among other things, a direct appeal to working-class patriotism. His Education Act of 1902, which effectively gave free schooling to all, was a vital lever of social mobility, and helped provide an elevator to the clerical lower-middle class.

The debate about protectionism in the early 20th century that lasted from Balfour to Baldwin was aimed not least at securing jobs in manufacturing industries threatened by free trade. Stanley Baldwin’s avuncular speeches about England, and his sanction of deficit financing to keep employment up after the General Strike, were calculated to encourage working-class support – as was the opening of the dole to all those seeking work, and not just to the insured.

After the war, the Churchill administration of 1951 promised to build 300,000 council houses, and did, to deal with the Blitz’s legacy of destruction. This emulated another Baldwin initiative, when between 1925 and 1929 around 800,000 houses were built, at last fulfilling Lloyd George’s “homes for heroes” pledge of 1918. The Tory governments of the 1950s and early 1960s resisted denationalising almost all the industries Clement Attlee had taken into public ownership, or tampering with the NHS, because they understood their value to working-class people. Paradoxically, almost the only Tory leader not to propitiate the working class actively – Edward Heath – was the first to come from it, and his premiership ended largely at the hands of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Labour, by contrast, seems to have gone in a reverse direction. Although the labour movement has always had a bourgeois element in its leadership – from the days of Henry Hyndman and William Morris through to Attlee, Hugh Dalton, Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Benn and Tony Blair – the evidence of the last three elections especially is that the party is losing its old core vote, which has an instinctive conservatism and patriotism of a sort Attlee and Gaitskell would have shared. Labour has become the party of the metropolitan bourgeoisie. London, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham are now its strongholds, whereas more and more low-skilled workers and those without a degree are turning to the Tories. YouGov found that at the 2019 election 48 per cent of voters in social classes C2DE voted Tory, while only 43 per cent of ABC1s did.

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Today’s working-class Tories are defined by their determination to improve themselves and their way of life, and, I think, not to be contained by an idea of welfarism or a paternalism. One needs only to look at some of the working-class Tories elected to parliament in north-eastern seats such as Redcar, Bishop Auckland and Blyth to see this social phenomenon in action.

Jacob Young, who unseated Anna Turley in Redcar, made headlines when he announced that on Christmas Day he would work his shift as a technician at the Teesside chemical plant that has employed him since he left the local university, because he “couldn’t drop the lads in it”. He is only 26 and one of seven children from a Middlesbrough family: both his father and grandfather worked in chemical plants on Teesside.

Dehenna Davison, who is 25 and used to work in a computer games store, won Bishop Auckland – the first Tory to do so in its history. She grew up on a council estate in Sheffield, winning a scholarship to a local private school. Her father was a stonemason who was attacked and killed in a pub when she was 13, and her mother a nursery nurse. Ian Levy, an NHS health-care assistant, delivered perhaps the biggest shock of the election by winning Blyth Valley, which Labour had held since the seat’s creation in 1950.

The lives of these three, and a number of other new Tory MPs, mirror those of many who broke the habit of a lifetime and chose to vote for Boris Johnson’s party. They have unglamorous but socially necessary jobs, the experience of public housing, and of misfortunes requiring the support of the welfare state not permanently, but to allow their family to recover in an emergency.

But what these new MPs also had in common with many of their voters was the sense of aspiration; a determination to strive to succeed in education or, to use an unpopular Victorian phrase, to better themselves. These are not people who became Tories out of a sense of knowing their place in the social order; they became Tories because they felt the Conservative Party offered a more effective route towards social mobility than Labour did. And when the Labour Party promised to revolutionise public spending and ensure that only the wealthiest 5 per cent of taxpayers funded it, these voters were not merely sceptical, but incredulous.

More than this, when free broadband was thrown to the voters as an additional bone, and £58bn plucked from the air to compensate women born in the Fifties disadvantaged by changes to pension rights, it failed to stimulate a surge towards Labour. To judge from the results, few people believed either was wise or feasible.

Aspirational working-class Tory candidates in Labour seats often understood better than the Labour leadership that the constituents to whom they were trying to appeal were not stupid or gullible.

Aspects of what happened in the election were deeply familiar, and they do not necessarily bode well for Labour. The first flowering of the new, aspirational, undeferential working-class Toryism happened in 1979, and it started in Essex, where I grew up and still live.

The somewhat charmless new town of Basildon had been built from 1948 onwards, 25 miles east of London, to deal with the population overspill from the capital after so much housing was devastated in the Blitz. The first residents moved in during 1951, mostly from the East End. Until 1974 it was part of the much more middle-class, rural Billericay constituency; a new Basildon seat was created in time for the two elections of that year, and both were won by Eric Moonman for Labour, to no one’s surprise.

However, in 1979 Harvey Proctor, an ultra-Thatcherite, won the seat, which became symbolic of the country’s determination to move on from the postwar consensus and, especially, from the power of the trades unions. A major boundary change before 1983 created what should have been a safe Labour seat, hence Proctor moving to the new, safe Tory seat of Billericay: but David Amess, who fought Basildon, won it in that landslide year, and held it until 1997, when another set of boundary changes, and another landslide, gave it to New Labour.

Essex’s other new-town seat, Harlow, had an almost identical experience: the difference was that Stan Newens, MP since the seat was created in 1974, held it for Labour by a slim majority in 1979. However, Jerry Hayes won it for the Tories in 1983 and held it until 1997, when it too went to Labour. But then Tony Blair’s party was deliberately framed to make it one that aspirational centrists, such as many of those who had voted Tory in Basildon or Harlow for three or four general elections, could easily support.

For something had changed in the preceding 20 years that Blair recognised. It was that – whether the left liked it or not – Thatcherism had changed the currency of politics, notably by helping people who had grown up considering themselves working class to acquire some of the advantages of the middle class. One obvious means of this was enabling people to buy their council properties, and it spread far beyond Basildon and Harlow, even though the policy later resulted in housing shortages for a new generation. Driving through most of southern England in the 1980s one noted former council houses being cosmetically transformed – new front doors, new windows, repainting – to symbolise the choice that came with ownership.


Firm foundations: Tory candidate Margaret Roberts, later Thatcher, canvassing in Dartford, 1951

But Thatcherism did something even more useful for the denizens of Basildon and other new or expanded, predominantly working-class towns on the London periphery – such as Harlow, Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead, Bracknell and Crawley.

The unthinking left instinctively associated Thatcherism with benefiting the well-heeled establishment, but Thatcher herself saw the establishment, with its vested interests and club-like atmosphere, as inherently anti-competitive, and wanted to break it up. The deregulation of the City of London in 1986, the so-called Big Bang, brought competition that wrecked old networks that put the old school, college or regimental tie ahead of commercial ability. Once that changed, what the disrupted and threatened snobs called “the barrow boys” poured off their commuter trains and into offices and, with their instinctive ability and traders’ thirst for money, transformed the financial services industry, their lives and their communities.

Since 2010 Basildon has had two parliamentary seats, both of them Conservative. Robert Halfon, a champion of “white van conservatism” who has called on his party to be renamed the Workers’ Party, won Harlow back for the Tories in 2010 and has consolidated his hold on it. The Conservatives did not just borrow Labour votes in 1979, they acquired them permanently, but for the New Labour interregnum from 1997 to 2010.

This has become true of all sorts of constituencies in southern England since 1979. The phenomenon has implications for the immediate future: both for the Conservatives who wish to do to Redcar and Blyth and Bishop Auckland what they did for Basildon or Harlow, but more to the point for Labour. The party’s disconnection with its working-class northern heartland could yet prove similar to that with its former working-class southern vote outside London, or with what has happened to the party in Scotland for different reasons.

The Tories, though, will have to find a means to give voters in its “new” seats a long-term interest in voting for them, once Brexit is over. If the people of Blyth, Bishop Auckland and Bolsover are not to take their votes back at the next election they will, for a start, need to feel genuinely better off in 2023 or 2024 as a result of this government’s policies. For the government the easy part is over; now it will need to prove it continues to understand the new working-class Tories by finding an equivalent of council house sales or the Big Bang to ensure permanent improvements to their lives, and satisfaction of their aspirations.

By then such voters will also want the proof of their own eyes that public services are working far better than they are now.

For the whole country, but particularly for this new Tory constituency, a reduction in NHS waiting times in A&E, the lengths of waiting lists, and an urgent improvement in the availability of GP services must be priorities. And standards must improve in primary and secondary schools, so that we end the shameful situation of the better universities being pressured to lower the bar for student admissions, and instead have secondary schools that supply an abundance of well-qualified potential undergraduates and that achieve better results at A-level.

Better education and an improved local economy will in time help alleviate social problems, but so too would a better police force. The very least the government must seek to do is to restore numbers to where they were before the disastrous cuts implemented by Theresa May as home secretary in 2011.

There has been much talk of the so-called Northern Powerhouse – a term coined by George Osborne. Although HS2 would be a waste of money in that it would mostly enable people to reach the already overwhelmed and highly expensive capital from Birmingham slightly faster than at present, opening up the corridor between Liverpool and Hull would bring real value to communities along the way. It would bring jobs to parts of east Lancashire and west Yorkshire that were bypassed by the economic revolution that has occurred in the south, and particularly in the south-east, since 1979, and would encourage migration to those areas if coupled with other economic initiatives.

These could include zoning for VAT and corporation tax holidays, in the hope it would encourage the establishment of new businesses in areas of high unemployment and economic deprivation.

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As the working-class Tories of the south of England have shown, when a government’s policies lead to tangible improvements in prosperity in specific areas, it is less likely that people will vote for a party whose policies might undo that prosperity. In the south of England outside London, Labour tends only to hold seats in places with large student populations, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, Exeter, Canterbury, Norwich, Southampton and Bristol. Rare exceptions to the right of the Tees-Exe line are Bedford, Reading East, Portsmouth South, Slough and the two Luton seats. Otherwise, entire counties are blue.

However, they also showed in 1997, after the Major administration’s economic mismanagement culminated in penally high interest rates and the humiliation of Black Wednesday in September 1992, that they will turn from a government that breaks promises about continued prosperity.

In Essex, as in much of the rest of the country in the early 1990s, businesses failed, jobs were lost and houses were repossessed as interest rates reached 15 per cent to maintain an artificially high value for sterling. Seats with a high proportion of “working-class” (or rather, newly middle-class) Tories, not just in Basildon and Harlow but also Braintree and Harwich, went to New Labour in the 1997 landslide, while majorities were slashed elsewhere. The aggrieved voters did not seek a return to socialism – and Blair certainly did not offer one – but a party that would be sympathetic to their aspirations and help recover them after a Tory betrayal. By 2010, they had lost patience with that alternative too, and went back to what, it seemed, was now their natural home.

The Tories, if they want to hold on to their new voters, cannot afford to go into the next election without having made those tangible improvements in public services and prosperity. Anything else, even if Brexit is accomplished in a manner the public generally finds satisfactory, would bring a sense of betrayal to some degree. They might argue that the constituency boundary changes that seem certain to be imposed before the next election will benefit them, along with the absence of a Brexit Party splitting the anti-Labour vote in certain seats that Labour might otherwise have lost in 2019.

If they take such a cynical view they would get a lesson in reality such as Labour has just had: that the British public, including a hard-headed working class, is not nearly so stupid as some in political circles occasionally make the mistake of imagining.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 24 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people