How the Suburbs Turned Red

By Crewe, Ivor | New Statesman (1996), June 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

How the Suburbs Turned Red


Crewe, Ivor, New Statesman (1996)


On 7 June, for the first time, most Labour voters are likely to be middle class.

Ivor Crewe explains how the electoral world was turned upside down

On that memorable election night in May 1997, what made people rub their eyes in disbelief was not simply the size of Labour's majority, but where it came from. The drumbeat of Labour gains was a roll-call of the suburban and small-town Home Counties: Braintree, Hastings, Harrow, Hendon, Hemel Hempstead, Hove, Putney, St Albans, Enfield Southgate Southgate! -- Watford. Only Surrey stayed solidly blue. The rest of John Betjeman country turned red.

Famous Labour victories were not always made this way. In 1964, when Harold Wilson ended 13 years of Conservative government, Labour's share of the British vote (44.8 per cent) was almost identical to that in 1997 (44.3 per cent). But in 1964, the electorate was polarised by class. Labour built its victory on 68 per cent of the working-class vote but a mere 19 percent of the salariat vote. By 1997, Labour's share of the working-class vote had fallen lightly to 64 per cent, but its share of the salariat vote--36 per cent-- was almost double. Among all white-collar/blouse workers, Labour won 22 percent of the vote in 1964, but 39 percent in 1997.

Normally, the fluctuation in the Labour vote from one election to the next is pretty uniform across the social spectrum: the popular notion of a critical swing group (Worcester Woman, Essex Man and so on) is a myth. But in 1997, the middle classes switched to Labour in much larger numbers than the rest of the electorate. The 1997 British Election Study found that the Labour vote increased by 14 percentage points among all respondents to the survey, but by 18 points among routine non-manual workers, 19 points among the salariat and a huge 24 points among the self-employed.

Why were the professionals, managers and small-business people won over in such unprecedented numbers? Social commentators pointed to the new insecurities afflicting the middle classes-"delayering", takeovers, asset-stripping, computerisation, negative equity -- and to their resentments at the telephone-number salaries in the City and utilities boardrooms. However, the verdict of the 1997 British Election Study is that the triumph of the Blairite project is at least as good an explanation. Among the middle classes who voted Conservative in 1992, the economically confident defected in the same proportions as the economically insecure. But in 1987, Labour was still seen as a sectional party, concerned above all with looking after the interests of trade unions. By 1997, 85 percent saw new Labour as a party that looked after the interests of the middle classes "very" or "fairly" closely -- well up on the 59 per cent of 1987, and fractionally more than said the same of the Conservatives. Unlike the Conservatives, it was also credited -- by 93 per cent -- with looking after working-class interests. It had become the classless, one-nation party.

Labour appears to have consolidated its middle-class support since 1997. MORI's aggregated polls for the second quarter of 2000 reported a further 3.5 per cent swing to Labour since the general election. This was almost entirely due to a surge of middle-class support: the swing was 6.5 per cent among the ABs (professionals and managers) and 5 per cent among the C1s (routine non-manual workers), but only 1 per cent among manual workers and welfare dependants. These figures have been borne out in by-elections since 1997. In the four middle-class Con-Lab seats (Uxbridge, Beckenham, Eddisbury, and Kensington and Chelsea), the Labour vote fell by a mere 1.1 percent. In the four by-elections in working-class Lab-Con seats (Leeds Central, Wigan, Tottenham, Preston), it haemorrhaged by 15.3 per cent.

All the evidence points to Labour increasing its middle-class support on 7 June -- an extraordinary achievement after a full term in office. …

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