While traditionally the British electorate was categorized into the working class and the ruling class, the twentieth century had seen the rise of Middle England, which is at times caricatured to be “insular, selfish, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-welfare, anti-Europe and generally resentful” (Benson, 1989). The rise to prominence of Middle England is attributed to the fact that “its inhabitants are in fact more numerous, more diverse and considerably more liberal than the stereotype”, making it a real electoral force (Benson, 1989). The notion of Middle England being a twentieth century phenomenon is well documented in English scholarship, as the following passage shows.
“Ian Hislop, researching his BBC radio series Looking for Middle England, found Lord Salisbury using the term in 1882, but it did not seem to have caught on. The historian David Cannadine records in his Class in Britain that it was Mrs T herself who introduced the term into the modern political lexicon–apparently copying Richard Nixon’s conjuring of “Middle America”. Politically, Middle England denotes a set of voters, presumed to have mainstream attitudes, who are also disproportionately likely to be swing voters in marginal constituencies. Martin Jacques has complained that Middle England is a metaphor for respectability, the nuclear family, conservatism, whiteness, middle age and the status quo.” (Reeves, 2007)
A strong indicator of social class’ relevance to twentieth century British politics is the amount of research and analysis dedicated to this area. For example, using scientific methods, researchers have coined a term called ‘absolute class voting’, which is defined as “middle-class Conservative plus working class Labour votes as a proportion of the total votes cast”. The assumption behind ‘absolute class voting’ is that the electorate is naturally affiliated to the political party representing their class. In other words, Leftist parties are identified with working class Britain and Rightist parties with white collar workers. If the percentage of electorate voting for their default party affiliation falls, the levels of class voting can be said to have declined. This method of ascertaining class voting patterns in Britain has proved consistent with empirical evidence. It is another matter that recent election results suggest a decline in class based party affiliations (Manza, 1995). For example,
“Class analysts do recognize the importance of collective mobility, in particular the decline of the manual working class and other changes in class structures of post-industrial societies. For example, a significant portion of the poor electoral results of the Labour Party in Britain is a reflection of substantial decline in the size of the manual working class in recent decades. While acknowledging the force of non-class cleavages on political attitudes (and to a lesser extent, political partisanship), analysts who continue to emphasize the importance of class argue that non-class cleavages have always existed in capitalist societies and that there is little evidence yet that new cleavages are emerging that are actually bringing about class de-alignment, especially with respect to partisanship.” (Manza, 1995)
The Sociological approach assumes that voting preferences change as per the socio-economic background of the individual voter, and generally people vote for the party that best represents their interests. While such background factors can include religion, gender, race, financial status etc., for the most part they represent social class identification. The first major study of voting behaviour in Britain was carried out by the team of Butler and Stokes’, whose results were published in the book Political Change in Britain (1964). They concluded that British democracy functioned as a “stable two-party system with the principal cleavage between non-manual workers and manual workers, the former voting Conservative and the latter, Labour” (Shaw, 1998). While this assessment is true for much of the century, there have been periods of exception. For instance, the consecutive successes of the Tories under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher in the years between 1979 and 1991 were based on the strong support from Conservative Party supporters who comprised 43 percent of the total electorate. Added to this, the sharp downturn in the Labour Party’s electoral prospects and the steady support for new alternatives have induced this anomaly in British voting behaviour. In fact, commentators such as Crewe, Dunleavy, Rose and McAllister argue that