Flip Chart Fairy Tales

Labour’s problem is not the Red Wall – it’s the Grey Wall


The Labour Party is in danger of losing its nerve again. Ten years ago, the story that Labour spent all the money and caused the country’s massive debt was allowed to go unchallenged. The Labour Party, paralysed by the shock of the election, failed to fight back. By the time the party had recovered its composure and started to challenge the narrative of fiscal incompetence it was too late. No-one was listening.

This time the story that is going unchallenged is that Labour has lost the support of the working class. Worse still, the Conservatives are becoming the party of the working class. The great class inversion is the story of the moment. When even Keir Starmer says that Labour has lost the trust of the working class, well, it must be true, mustn’t it? Since the elections earlier in May, Labour has collapsed in the opinion polls. Of course it has. The story has become self-fulfilling.

But is it true? Are the Tories really now the party of the working class? Is Labour now only the party of metropolitan poshos?

The data don’t bear any of this out though. Christabel Cooper has looked at the British Election Study data from 2019. It shows the Conservatives doing better among all income groups except the poorest and especially well among the richest.

General Election 2019 vote by household income

Chart by Christabel Cooper using British Election Study data

But look what happens when you strip out retired voters. The split between Labour and Conservative voters is about where you would expect it to be, with the tipping point somewhere just above the median income.

General Election 2019 vote by household income – excluding retired voters

Marios Richards did an analysis of BES data for the under-55s, using gross personal incomes. It’s a similar picture, with a Labour majority among lower earners. As Jonn Elledge notes, of the working class voters that are working, Labour still has the largest share of their support.

It’s retired people that swung the vote for the Conservatives. There are a lot of them and a larger proportion of them vote than in younger age cohorts. As Marios points out, after adjusting for turnout, the median age of voters at the last general election was 53.

What these income figures don’t tell us is the impact of housing costs. Around three-quarters of those aged over 65 own their own homes outright. They may be income-poor but they are asset-rich. Without the need to spend on housing costs, their state and occupational pensions can leave them quite comfortably off, especially if they live in areas where the cost of living is low. As the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission found, once you factor in housing costs, pensioner household incomes are slightly better than those of working-age people.

Chart by Resolution Foundation

There is a cohort of voters whose working lives coincided with the period when middle earners got the largest slice of the economic pie. A lot of those middle earners didn’t have degrees because they could get relatively well-paid jobs without needing the sort of qualifications their counterparts would need to do similar jobs today. Furthermore, they were able to buy property relatively cheaply by today’s standards and the government helped with the sale of council housing and mortgage tax relief. In the decades when the 1945-55 cohort were in their early twenties, it was much easier for two people on average earnings to buy property than it is now.

Chart by Joe Sarling

Joe Chrisp has broken the voting patterns down by age and housing tenure, again using BES data. In broad terms, older people are more likely to vote than younger people, homeowners are more likely to vote than renters and graduates are more likely to vote than non-graduates. The data indicate that the majority of younger non-graduate renters did not vote.

Chart by Joe Chrisp

Looking at the breakdown of both main parties’ support, it is clear that older non-graduate homeowners form the largest section of Conservative support. As Joe points out, some of those people in the dark blue section in the 2019 bar were also in the dark green section in the 1992 bar.

The home-owning baby boomers who propelled Major to victory in 1992 (when they were under 55) are now the bedrock of the Tory coalition as they age. In 2017, approximately half of its voters were homeowners over the age of 55 without degrees.

Chart by Joe Chrisp

A similar breakdown of the Labour vote shows that Blair captured some of the non-graduate home owner vote in 1997 but a lot of it had been lost again by 2010. The caricature of the typical Labour voter as a young urban graduate is some way wide of the mark. Graduates are still a minority of the Labour vote. The majority of Generation Rent, it seems, doesn’t bother to vote.

The Resolution Foundation’s analysis of the 50 ‘Blue Wall’ seats that were gained by the Conservatives from Labour in 2019, in the North, Midlands and Wales, showed that these seats had a higher rate of home ownership than constituencies that stayed Labour.

Our cultural references, and especially those of our politicians and commentariat, seem to be stuck in the 1970s. When we talk about the working class, we still have an image of a man in a donkey jacket standing outside a mine or a steelworks. When TV news channels travel to small towns in the Midlands and North and interview people during the day, they find people who look and sound like we think the working class should look and sound. Some of them can usually be relied upon to have a go at the Labour Party. Many of them may have once had working class jobs but, as home owners with good pensions, these days, they are not too badly off. As a result, they are largely insulated from the economic threats faced by the younger population. As Jonn put it:

A retired Teesside steelworker can be working class in terms of their family, career history, self-image and so forth, while still having a different set of economic interests to a 25-year-old renter on a zero-hours contract. 

Some have argued that this means the Labour Party is finished until the Boomers die off but this is a bit premature. Labour’s critics are right in that it should have done better among those of working age with low incomes. As Joe’s charts show, there are lots of non-voters to go at. All those non-voting renters should be fertile ground for the Labour Party.

There is little point in getting embroiled in what it means to be working class, as arguments will go on well into the night without resolution. It’s perhaps worth going back to some core principles though. One of the reasons the Labour Party was formed was because landlords and corporations were oppressing and exploiting people, often with the collusion of the state. There is still a lot of that going on. The Windrush Generation, the Cladding Scandal and the unbelievable corporate abuse at the Post Office spring to mind.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected all the people you would expect it to; lower paid workers, the young, ethnic minorities and those in rented accommodation. Covid has laid bare some of the UK’s systemic inequalities. As Torsten Bell put it:

We may be in the same storm but we are clearly in different boats.

Chart by Resolution Foundation

The Labour Party needs to get more of people in these groups out to vote. It won’t do that by telling everyone that it has lost the support of working people. The story that Labour spent all the money and left the country in debt never really went away and the party paid a heavy price for allowing that meme to take root. Stories like this, once they become established, spread like Japanese Knotweed and are just as difficult to kill.

Labour hasn’t lost the support of working people but it has lost the support of the retired. That will make it more difficult to win elections but starting from a clear understanding of what has happened in the last decade goes some way to helping decide what to do about it. The cause of Labour’s election losses isn’t the Blue Wall or the Red Wall, it’s the Grey Wall.