Chris Harman


Swing shift

(June 1997)

From Socialist Review, No.209, June 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

New Labour is already creating its own mythology about the election victory – a mythology which much of the media are turning into an orthodoxy. It was, it is claimed, a vindication of Blair’s targeting of well to do middle England – the sort of people who are able to afford a new Galaxy ‘people carrier’ car with its price tag of £18,000 to £30,000. But the exit poll surveys of voters show something quite different.

Certainly Labour picked up votes in the south of England on a massive scale. The biggest swings were in outer London, where ten of the 41 seats being defended by the Tories registered swings of more than 17 percent. The south east had the second biggest regional swing to Labour of 12.2 percent. It won seats such as St Albans, Hove, Gillingham, Hemel Hempstead and Dartford, as well as the better known cases of Stevenage and Basildon. In Hastings and Rye on the south coast

Labour leapt from third place behind the Liberals to take the seat with an 18.5 percent swing.

But who were these new voters? The orthodoxy claims they came, as the Sunday Times put it in its election analysis, from ‘all classes’. But in fact the exit poll breakdown of the vote by conventional social categories based upon occupation shows a very different picture.

According to these, Labour got 61 percent of the ‘semi and unskilled manual’ vote (the ‘Ds’ and ‘Es’) and 54 percent of the ‘skilled manual’ vote (the ‘C2s’), as against only 21 and 25 percent for the Tories in these groups.

In fact the proportion of workers voting Labour will have been even higher than these figures suggest, since the C2 group includes traditionally Tory voting foremen and manual self employed as well as shop floor workers. Despite this, the C2 swing to Labour was 15 percent.

The proportion of the manual groups voting Tory was lower than in any post- war election – even in 1945 the Tories picked up 29 percent of their votes.

By contrast, among the ‘professional and managerial’ ‘As’ and ‘Bs’, the Tories still got 42 percent this time, Labour only 31 percent. The swing to Labour here was only 9 percent. This in itself points to a sharp polarisation along class lines.

The point is reinforced by what happened among the ‘C1’ category of routine white collar workers – the clerical and related workers. The Conservatives always outvoted Labour in this group in the past. Even though its members have wages or salaries which are often lower than those of manual workers, they usually thought of themselves as ‘middle class’ and voted accordingly.

In 1964 the Tories took 54 percent of their vote, in 1966 48 percent, in 1979 48 percent, in 1992 48 percent. Only in October 1974 was Labour, briefly, close to catching up. Yet on 1 May the C1s gave Labour the biggest swing of all, with 47 percent of the vote and a whopping 21 percent lead over the Tories.

In the 1950s and 1960s this group tended not to belong to genuine trade unions (as opposed to management unions or staff associations) and hardly ever took strike action. That changed in the 1970s with the first strikes of low grade civil servants, white collar local government employers, health workers and so forth. But it did not usually translate, as trade unionism did among manual workers, into a vote for Labour. Yet the proportion of Tory voters among this group now is lower than it has been historically among manual workers!

Finally, what about the 31 percent of ‘professional and managerial’ types who did vote Labour? Surely, it might be argued, this shows that Blair did win the Galaxy car owners?

Here the Office of National Statistics categories normally used in dividing the population into social groups are most confusing. For they divide people up, not as Marxists do according to whether they are exploited in the process of production, but on vague notions of ‘life style’. So the AB category does not only include the rich, highly paid yuppies or even mainly those who occupy nice managerial niches on 30 or 40 grand. It lumps together with them most librarians, all teachers, all nurses, radiographers, physiotherapists, medical technicians, all journalists, window dressers, actors, singers, lab technicians and supervisors in shops and offices.

An analysis of the ‘professional and managerial’ group by the sociologists Goldthorpe and Payne in the 1980s indicated that fewer than a third of its members were in genuinely managerial roles – the sort of people Blair went out to court with his talk of Galaxy cars. That means he was chasing a mere 10 percent of the population.

Nor is that all. There is lots of evidence that the ABs who swung to Labour were those at the bottom of the hierarchies, who work for wages and salaries under conditions increasingly subject to the same pressures and the same managerial bullying as manual workers. Thus a survey in the Times Educational Supplement in March showed that 60 percent of teachers intended to vote Labour, and only about 15 percent Tory. By contrast back in 1979, 50 percent voted Tory and only about 32 percent Labour.

The results of a survey of nurses in the Nursing Times came up with rather similar results. It showed that 70 percent of nurses nationally (and 67 percent in south east England) intended to vote Labour, as against only 16 percent Tory – a massive 54 percent lead. By contrast, a similar poll in 1992 gave Labour 43 percent, only 10 percent ahead of the Tories.

The nurses and teachers together make up about a quarter of those in the AB grouping. The change in their votes alone would account for nearly half the growth in the Labour vote in the grouping.

The rest of the increase almost certainly comes from other groups with similar wages and salaries, facing a similar deterioration in working conditions, stress, and a similar growth of job insecurity – groups like lecturers in further and higher education, technicians in the health service, social workers, housing officers and librarians in local government, the lower executive grades in the civil service.

For all of these groups the swing to Labour does not amount to the Labour vote becoming more middle class. Rather, it amounts to people who are objectively working class, with some traditions of trade union action, moving to vote along class lines.

A couple of other points bear out the class character of the vote. First, geographically, the swings in the south and south east were not uniform. The seats the Tories kept easily were in the genuinely wealthy areas like the New Forest (although these, of course, contain many workers). By contrast, the ones they lost were where routine clerical workers, teachers, nurses and so forth have increasingly suffered with manual workers from the impact of Tory social policies – the hospital closures, the increase in class sizes and the repossessions. It is this which explains cases like Hastings, Hove, St Albans and so forth.

Often the shift to Labour voting seems to have grown directly out of local protests – over the poll tax in 1990, the pit closures in 1992, the school class size protests in 1994 and the many local hospital closures since. All these have combined with the bitterness over the recession and the succession of ‘fat cat’ scandals to create an elemental class feeling of ‘us’ who depend on social provision against ‘them’ who can afford to go private.

Finally, there is little doubt the vote for Labour would have been much higher if it had campaigned more vigorously over such issues. Many Tory MPs only held on to their seats narrowly, despite the fact that local Labour supporters had been told to campaign elsewhere in more marginal seats. And in many inner city areas there was a low turnout as the poorest groups of Tory voters stayed at home rather than switching to Labour on the scale elsewhere – partly because Labour did not campaign in such places, partly because it promised so little (the exit polls suggest both it and the Tories lost some votes among pensioners), partly because of accumulated cynicism towards all politicians after years of indifference from Labour councils.

But whatever the cause it is clear that there was a much bigger class vote to be had in these places. Not getting Labour voters out goes a lot of the way to explaining why its overall vote of 44 percent was about 5 percent less than many opinion polls had been suggesting was possible. The election result points to the real class map of Britain. The decisive question in the period ahead is whether the class feeling develops into struggle which will achieve real gains for people or whether, as after 1974, the government succeeds in stalling such struggle – and in so doing makes people sink back into acceptance of the old order, thus giving the Tories another chance.

Last updated on 21 December 2009