Chris Harman


How the Working Class votes

(November 1985)

First published in Socialist Worker Review, No. 81, November 1985, pp. 14–16.
Republished in A. Callinicos & C. Harman, The Changing Working Class, London 1987.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

How Britain Votes
Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice
Pergamon Press, London 1985.

REVOLUTIONARIES are quite rightly distrustful about psephology – the study of voting behaviour. Voting figures and opinion polls provide static images of partial aspects of people’s views. They ignore the contradictory ways in which people think, the way they will express one view in certain situations (for instance, if faced with a voting paper that comes through the letter box) and quite a different view in other situations (for instance, at a workplace meeting). Above all, they take no account of the way in which ideas can change in struggle. So they end up simply reflecting the ideological status quo, instead of showing how it could be changed.

That does not mean, however, that their findings are never of any interest. Sometimes knowing what the ideological status quo is can be of importance – especially when important political opponents rest part of their case on a misinterpretation of it. For this reason the new study, How Britain Votes, is of considerable interest – despite the fact that it is likely to become the swingologists’ bible.

Since the disastrous result for Labour in the 1983 British general election, much of the running on the left has been made by the ideas of the historian Eric Hobsbawm and his followers. These hold that traditional working-class socialist politics is in irreversible decline, that Thatcherism has been able to take advantage of this to establish a new ‘authoritarian populist’ base for conservatism, and that the only way for the left to fight back is to establish a new alliance with the parties and movements of the middle class to build an anti-Thatcher electoral majority.

How Britain Votes provides important empirical evidence against some of the key Hobsbawmite arguments. It shows that the class basis of politics in Britain has not disappeared, that the manual working class is ‘somewhat more united politically than is sometimes supposed’, so that in 1983, ‘a particularly bad election for Labour’, the party still got 51 per cent of skilled workers’ votes and 48 per cent of semi-skilled and unskilled workers’ votes. It shows that things like changed patterns of consumption and house ownership have had much less effect on workers than is commonly assumed – for instance, by Hobsbawm with his claim that ‘the manual working-class core of traditional socialist labour parties has been transformed, and to some extent divided, by the decades in which living standards reached levels undreamed of even by the well-paid in the 1930s.’

The study found, for instance, that former Labour-voting council tenants who had bought their own houses were no more likely to vote Tory than those who hadn’t. At the same time, it makes a point that must almost completely destroy the ‘authoritarian populist’ argument:

The total level of support for the Conservatives [in the 1983 election] was not particularly high ... In ten of the 18 elections since the emergence of the present party structure in 1922, the Conservative Party won a larger share of the vote that Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives managed in 1983.

The authors are able to reaffirm the class basis of British politics because they break down the figures usually used to identify the manual working class. They show that the figures usually given include, along with manual wage workers, the manual self-employed and small businessmen, on the one hand, and ‘foremen and technicians’ on the other. But these last two groups, it is shown, have always voted in a markedly different way to those whose lives depend on selling their manual labour power.

It is the petty bourgeois which is the most conservative class ... This plays havoc with the conventional manual/non-manual division. And although ‘foremen and technicians’ differ in their voting pattern from the small businessmen and the unemployed, there is a big Conservative lead among them (with 48 per cent voting Tory and only 26 per cent Labour).

The analysis of voting also breaks down the figures usually given for ‘white collar’, ‘middle class’ voting. It separates out ‘routine non-manual workers’ from higher grades, which it refers to as the ‘salariat’. It distinguishes between ‘workers such as clerks, salesworkers and secretaries ... subordinate positions with relatively low levels of incomes’ and ‘managers and administrators, supervisors of non-manual workers, professionals and semi-professionals ... All occupations which afford a secure basis of employment, typically affording a high income ... [and often] the exercise of authority.’

The ‘routine non-manual workers’ now make up 24 per cent of the population. Their numbers have grown by 6 per cent since 1964. During that period the number of manual employees has fallen, from 47 to 34 per cent of the population. But the manual and routine non-manual combined still account, on this study’s definition, for 58 per cent of the population. The proletariat, white and blue-collar, is still easily the majority class.

Actually, in the real world, things are even better in this respect than the study suggests. For its ‘salariat’ is a catch-all category. It includes people like managers who clearly belong to the new petty bourgeoisie (or even the managerial section of the bourgeoisie proper) and groups of ‘semi-professionals’ who must be included as workers in any Marxist analysis (since they sell their labour power, exercise no control over the means of production and exercise no authority over other workers – for instance, class room teachers, lower grade nurses). The figures given for salaries suggest how inadequate the hold-all category is: average male ‘salariat’ earnings are shown as only 70 per cent higher (and average female ‘salariat’ earnings as only 19 per cent higher) than average male manual wages. Hardly the stuff out of which a ruling class is made!

This point is very important, because the study claims that the ‘salariat’ is the fastest growing class – now accounting for 27 per cent of the population (only 7 per cent less than the manual working class). What is more, it sees this class as being the main base of both the Tory and the Alliance vote. It then gives as a major reason for Labour’s low vote in the last two general elections me change in the sizes of the two biggest classes (although it argues that in a three-party system, Labour’s hold over die manual working class could still lay the basis for a general election win next time).

But a detailed analysis of the different groupings making up the ‘salariat’ would give a very different result from that of the study. It would show only about 12 per cent of the population as belonging to the privileged section (the managerial section of the bourgeoisie and the ‘new middle class’), with the rest belonging to the ranks of the working class.

The study’s approach fails to grasp the most important point about the relationship between class and politics in Britain: the restructuring of industry has produced a restructuring of the working class, not the growth of a new class alongside and comparable in size to the working class. We can see this if we compare three different ways of looking at the class structure (using the basic figures provided in the book) in terms of percentages of the total population:





Ruling class



New middle class




Old middle class




Foremen and technicians



Working-class –&nbs├╝;White collar



Working-class – Blue collar




Total working class




As can be seen, the ruling class disappears entirely from How Britain Votes, and often does not appear in the conventional/ Hobsbawmite analysis.

These different pictures of the class structure lead to different explanations as to Labour’s failure. The conventional (and Hobsbawmite) explanation is to say both that Labour gets less than a majority of working-class support and that it fails to appeal to the growing middle class. How Britain Votes argues against this that Labour does get majority manual worker support (once ‘foremen and technicians’ are excluded from the working class). But the book fails to explain why that degree of support is down on that of ten years earlier. Nor can it explain the low level of support for Labour among ‘routine non-manual’ workers. Only 25 per cent of non-manual workers voted Labour in 1983 – only a little more than half the number who voted Tory.

The failure to deal with this problem means that in the end How Britain Votes ends up with political conclusions very similar to those who use the conventional analyses – the Labour Party, it says, needs to stress ‘liberal’ values that appeal to the ‘educated’ section of the ‘salariat’ (and its ‘scientific’ description of liberal values includes support for the EEC and for the right of racists to put across their ideas) and to stress the ‘fairness’ to all classes of its policies. Yet there is a much easier explanation of Labour’s weakness. How Britain Votes stresses that:

Employment conditions are more fundamental determinants of values and political allegiance than is lifestyle ... Manual wage labourers have relatively little security of employment and relatively poor fringe benefits such as sick pay and pension schemes. They have little control over their own working conditions and little discretion over what they do at work. They also have relatively poor chances of gaining promotion to the better-paid and more secure managerial positions. As a result manual workers cannot be sure to improve their positions through individual action. Instead they must look to collective action ...

All this is true. But it neglects a very important point. It was only through the experience of struggle that the ‘old’ manual working class adopted ‘collective’ values and came to identify with some sort of left politics. From the 1850s until the early 1890s the great majority of workers voted for the individualistic Liberal Party of Gladstone. Even after the first successful battles for Labour representation, the majority of workers still voted Tory or Liberal. The working class was won to ‘collective’ values and Labour voting by three waves of industrial struggle – that of the late 1880s and the 1890s, that of 1910–26, and that of the late 1930s and the wartime years. It was the experience of these struggles which led first the ‘old’ manual working class of heavy industry and textiles to turn to Labour, and then the newer working class of light engineering, motors and so on to do so. But this process, by which new layers of workers were pulled behind others into support for Labour, stopped in the 1950s and 1960s – just as the massive growth of ‘routine’ white-collar employment began.

This was not because the conditions of work in such white-collar employment ruled out ‘collective’ attitudes. There was, after all, a massive growth of white-collar trade unionism and of white-collar industrial action in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But this industrial ‘collectivism’ did not translate itself into political collectivism (and to judge from the ballots on affiliation to the Labour Party carried out a couple of years back in the white-collar unions NALGO and CPSA, shows no signs of doing so). Why?

You can’t begin to answer that question without remembering that Labour was in power for eleven of the years between 1964 and 1979 – the very years in which white-collar industrial militancy blossomed. Much of the militancy was, in fact, generated in reaction to the pro-capitalist policies of Labour in power. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that most routine white-collar workers and lower grade ‘semi-professionals’ did not see any reason to identify politically with the Labour Party.

Had there been a powerful political alternative to the left of Labour, things might have been a little different. Sections of manual workers might have struggled against Labour from a left, socialist position, creating a new political climate in which routine white-collar workers were in turn politicised to the left. But this did not happen, and so a collective approach in the workplaces did not translate itself into politics.

Once this is seen, you can also see why the policies of Labour leader Neil Kinnock cannot do more than gain transitory support from most sections of white-collar workers. Labour’s attempts at present to make itself indistinguishable from the Alliance parties might bear fruit in getting it sufficient ‘middle ground’ votes to win in a couple of years’ time. But as soon as it takes office, it will follow policies which will disillusion any white-collar following it has built up.

Last updated on 14 October 2019