To what extent is social class the best indicator of twentieth-century voting patterns in Britain?

Social class continues to play a significant role in the electoral outcomes of all modern democracies. This is particularly true in Britain, as the nation still grapples with a historical legacy that is rooted in class divisions. Having embraced democracy toward the later half of the nineteenth century, political institutions have evolved to function around existing class demarcations. While class consciousness still plays a major role in British polity, it may no longer be the primary force of policy making that it once was. This essay will attempt to assess the relationship between social class and election outcomes in twentieth century Britain by way of citing evidence from scholarly literature.

Seen from a historical perspective, the British, and especially the English, “have traditionally considered themselves above nationalism”. In other words, the self-identity of British citizens is influenced more by their socio-economic background than notions of being uniquely English. This is acknowledged by politicians from both ends of the political spectrum. As Roger Scruton points out, “In the United Kingdom nationalism is confined to the Celtic fringes, where it has been associated with movements for home rule in Ireland, Scotland and – to some extent – Wales. English nationalism is virtually unknown, at least under that description.” (Harris, 1998)

“None of which, of course, is to suggest that the British in general, or the English in particular, have altogether lacked self-awareness. The apparent absence of introspection has often been a pose. But it began as a reflection of the reality that the British in their heyday did not need to assert their national identity because it was already so pervasive. And not just good manners but common prudence required that such power be cloaked in a degree of self-effacement.” (Harris, 1998)

Class divisions in Britain were at their peak during the first half of the twentieth century. The working class Britain had for long been oppressed by monarchy, aristocracy and the industrial elite. The moment of recognition for its blood, sweat and toil for the nation, and its contribution to the success of the Industrial Revolution did not arrive until 1914, when it was asked to participate in the Great War. It was then that Lloyd George “proposed ‘homes fit for heroes’ and built the first huge council estates, thereby cementing class segregation into the landscape. For a brief period during and after the Second World War, the desires and needs of working-class people were taken into account–that is, until they became inconvenient. Voters asked for houses with gardens to be built, but millions got flats nonetheless” (Gurney, 1994).

“Along similar lines, it has now become commonplace to point out that working-class voters did not “ask” for immigration from the old British empire. Nor did they ask for the empire in the first place, but few marched against it in the same way as dockers, meat porters and factory workers did in support of Enoch Powell following his calculatedly vile “rivers of blood” speech”. (Clarke, et. al, 2004)

Further evidence for the relevance of class in elections in Britain is forwarded by John Goldthorpe. His topological model “constrains the statistical analysis to admit only traditional class alliances into the calculation of the effect of class on voting outcome. His model also introduces a distinction between positive and negative class voting” (Clarke, et. al, 2004). For instance, in Britain, citizens from the working class exercise positive class voting by choosing to vote Labour and exhibit a negative class voting pattern by voting against the Tories. In a comprehensive investigation of elections between 1964 and 1992, Goldthorpe found that “negative class voting fluctuates more than positive class voting. In particular, Conservative successes are frequently tied to their “national party” appeals that lower the propensity of workers (including routine white collar and elite blue collar workers) to vote against them” (Clarke, et. al, 2004).

But, with the sudden dismantling of the British Empire after the Second World War, Britain underwent an inevitable process of Balkanization. The twentieth century British democracy can be said to be defined by this process of Balkanization of the nation. Although foreign political commentators have not understood this phenomenon well, there is no doubt that we are witnessing a changing national awareness as a result. In the previous two centuries, when the British Empire bestrode the world and the school maps were printed with British flags, it was no surprise that London was regarded the centre of the world as opposed to the more realistic post Second World war notion of a refuge for a threatened society in retreat (Hanley, 2008). It was at this juncture that a new middle class emerged in the political scene. As Ben Page of the MORI Social Research Institute points out, “the label Middle England is used as a convenient shorthand for the 25 per cent of the population who are not surgically wedded to one of the main parties–and who happen to live in marginal constituencies. For this group, party commitment is weak and the impression made by an individual leader is strong. Policies are generally weakly linked with voting intention–unless they push the right buttons” (Reeves, 2007).

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