“Class-Party linkages has declined, resulting in a process they call ‘class de-alignment’. To illustrate their conclusions most stress the fragmentation of the class structure that has taken place over the past three decades as a result firstly of industrial changes – the decline of the ‘traditional’ working class industries: mining, shipbuilding, steel and secondly of greater social mobility – the growth of skilled manual labour, and home-ownership resulting in a new affluent working class concentrated in the South and Southeast. Such fragmentation results in all social classes and in particular the working class losing its social cohesion and ideological distinctiveness with the overall consequence that Britain has become less two-party and less two-class”.(Shaw, 1998)
Toward the last decades of the twentieth century, the equations of class have become intertwined with race. With the influx of highly skilled immigrant workers from across the world, alongside free flow of labour across the European Union, the term ‘working class’ is increasingly seen as representing indigenous whites of the British isles. While there is an element of exaggeration to this equation of class with race, the assessment is not devoid of truth. For example, BBC’s dedicated website posed the following question to its viewers: Is white working-class Britain becoming invisible? The implication here being that “British culture is underpinned by working-class tastes, comforts, vocabulary and prejudices: popular television; football; Greggs the baker; multimillion-selling tabloids; talent contests; sportswear labels; big settees; “real-life” magazines; slimming clubs; package holidays; “us” and “them”” (Weakliem, 1997). To this long list of cultural markers, the tag of left-wing politics can also be added.
The class realities in Britain were nowhere else better captured than in twentieth century literature. The Booker Prize winning novel Last Orders, written by Graham Swift subtly documents this fact. The novel shows how “working patterns in mill towns such as Bradford went some way towards causing the lives of white and non-white workers to be lived in parallel, rather than together. The racist son of one of the Wibsey club regulars, coiled with spite and resentment, has not “been made” racist by any slow process of estrangement from wider change; it is because his generation of working-class Bradfordians has grown up almost totally segregated by race” (Weakliem, 1997).
With the consistent victory of the New Labour Party, under Tony Blair’s leadership, the traditional sociological explanations, such as class-based voting, appear to be less of a predictor of voting behaviour in the current century than they were during the previous hundred years, and most political analysts see a continuation of the process of class de-alignment. Concomitantly, strong party identification also appears to have declined significantly, principally because of social changes within Britain over the past three decades. Nonetheless, until the next election we will not know for certain whether the present popular appeal of the New Labour is a true reflection of a decline in party identification or whether it was simply an exceptional case.
Benson, J. (1989). The Working Class in Britain, 1850-1939. London: Longman.
Brooke, S. (2001). GENDER AND WORKING CLASS IDENTITY IN BRITAIN DURING THE 1950s. Journal of Social History, 34(4), 773.
Clarke, H. D., Sanders, D., Stewart, M. C., & Whiteley, P. (2004). Political Choice in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.