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British comedy can tell us a thing or two about social class in modern Britain

As so often, some of the sharpest political insights come not from the sage columnists of our upmarket papers but from comedy writers. They have noticed – and exploited – some of the social class cross-currents that conventional analysis has tended to overlook.

Fifty years ago, things were so much simpler. The working classes voted Labour while the middle classes voted Conservative. In 1967 Peter Pulzer, a distinguished political scientist, wrote: “Class in the basis of British politics. All else is embellishment and detail.” He had good reason to say this. Labour had won the general election a year earlier by winning more than 60% of working class votes. It secured the votes of only one in four middle class voters, who preferred the Tories by more than two-to-one.

Today, Britain’s economic and social structure is completely different; and so is the nature of party loyalties. Using the same yardstick as in the 1960s – whether the job of the head of each voter’s household is essentially manual (“C2DE”) or non-manual (“ABC1) – the class gap is far narrower. In YouGov’s survey for Prospect of more than 3,000 electors, Labour enjoyed a 1% lead among ABC1 voters, and a 6% lead among C2DE voters – a class gap of five points.

However, these figures fail to tell the full story. Social class may no longer affect votes as powerfully as it used to – but its influence is still far greater than conventional polls suggest.

As well as ascertaining their conventional class position, we asked people whether they regarded themselves as “working class”, “middle class” or “upper class”. It turns out that almost one adult in three gives the “wrong” answer: nine million ABC1 adults consider themselves working class, while five million C2DE adults say they are middle class. (Only 1% called themselves upper class.) As far as I know, no equivalent data exists for the Fifties or Sixties, but it is hard to believe that the equivalent cross-over figures would have been anything like as high.

Does this matter? Isn’t social class a relic from the era of factories, coal mines, shipyards and steelworks, of little relevance today? One reason why it deserves attention concerns people’s party loyalties. When we analyse party support by the social class people give themselves, we find a much larger gulf between “middle” and “working” class voters than between ABC1 and C2DE voters.

Among “middle class” voters, the Tories lead Labour by 16 – while Labour is 21% ahead among “working class” voters. This time the class gap is a huge 37 points. The link between occupation and politics may have fractured, but that between people’s self-perception and party support still matters.

To dig deeper into this, we combined “objective” and “subjective” social class data, to create four groups, represented here (and with admittedly insulting stereotypes) by characters from British comedy:

The first two represent people whose objective and subjective status are the same

“Captain Mainwaring”, the banker from Dad’s Army who seeks to assert his superior status: ABC1 and middle class

“Alf Garnett”, the central character from Till death Do US Part: working class and proud of it

The other two represent the crossover groups: 

“Dave Spart” – Private Eye’s middle-class revolutionary, who regards himself as working class

“Hyacinth Bucket” – the snob with working class roots in Keeping Up appearances, forever trying to inflate her social status.

We find that the politics of the two crossover groups are driven far more by their “subjective” than their “objective” social class. Indeed, if anything, their attachment to their favoured party is slightly stronger than those whose “subjective” and “objective” locations are the same. Thus the Tory lead among Britain’s Hyacinth Buckets is higher than among its Captain Mainwarings, while Labour does slightly better among the Dave Sparts than the Alf Garnetts – which, I suspect is precisely what the creators of these characters would predict if they all got together. And it will come as no surprise to them that Britain’s Alf Garnetts – the C2DE folk who regard themselves as working class – provide more fertile ground for Ukip than any other group.

So: social class still plays a significant role in British politics; but how? Half a century ago, class experiences, loyalties and attitudes were rooted in ideology. Most working-class voters wanted more nationalisation, strong trade union, ambitious public spending programmes and higher income taxes (which largely came from people with middle-class jobs). That was why they voted Labour. The middle classes generally had little enthusiasm for any of these things (although, until Margaret Thatcher, few wanted to turn the clock back to small-government laissez-faire) and voted Conservative.

What are today’s political dividing lines between the classes? We listed seventeen policy ideas and asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with each. We were looking not so much for the overall balance of support for each policy, but for the extent to which “middle class” and “working class” voters differ.

The widest gulf concerns immigration. A big majority of “working class” voters want it stopped completely; “middle class” voters are evenly divided. Working class voters are also significantly more likely than middle class voters to distrust MPs as a whole, to think that Britain has changed for the worse in the past 20-30 years and to want the death penalty for those who kill police officers.

The notable thing about those dividing-line issues is that they are all cultural rather than ideological. On these, class divisions are far narrower. Big majorities on both sides of the class divide support renationalization of Britain’s railways – and oppose a bigger role for private companies in the NHS. Both groups are divided on the trade-off between taxes and public spending, on whether trade unions have done more harm than good, and on whether most recipients of welfare benefits really need the money.

There are bigger differences on the more specific issue of business leaders. Working class voters are far more critical of their motives and their ability to command million-plus salaries. Concerns for equity (or, if you prefer, the politics of envy) still have a class dimension. But even these can be regarded as cultural more than ideological matters.

However, on two other cultural issues, there is no class gap at all: middle and working class voters are equally divided on the decriminalising the possession of small amounts of cannabis – and majorities of both groups want to keep the new law permitting gay marriage.

This analysis helps to explain one of the big political trends of the past sixty years – the declining dominance of the two big, ideologically-rooted, parties, and the rise of the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party – and, now, Ukip.

At the time of writing, the votes in the European Parliament elections have yet to be cast; but, for second successive election, it looks as if the combined Labour and Conservative vote will be less than 50% of all votes cast. True, this is a second-order, low-turnout election in which people feel able to cast a protest vote without risk. But it does underline how both Labour and the Tories have struggled to keep pace with the changes in British society.

Those who believe that either social class still matters in the traditional way, or doesn’t matter at all, are both wrong. Social class is still a significant factor in British politics, but the nature of that factor has changed utterly. In this, as in so much else, the past is truly another country.

This commentary appears in the June edition of Prospect

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