How the Conservatives became the party of Britain’s poor

When Boris Johnson demolished the Red Wall at last year’s election, it was clear that the usual political rules had been upended.

Six months after the Conservatives built a big majority from formerly safe Labour seats, a new analysis from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveals just how much has changed.

“The Conservatives are now more popular among people on low incomes than they are among people on high incomes,” says the social policy think-tank.

Meanwhile, Labour is “just as popular among the wealthy as it is among those on low incomes”, the report continues. “Both parties have inverted their traditional support base.”

A detailed analysis of December’s vote result by the British Election Study found that Labour was backed by 30.6% of low-income voters, with 45.4% supporting the Conservative Party. “Among high-income voters, the figures were 40% for the Tories and 30.8% for Labour,” says the Daily Mail.

So just what has reversed traditional political allegiances of UK voters?

The Brexit effect

Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done” helped to accelerate his party’s reversal of fortunes.

A 2018 study by Warwick University researchers confirmed that Brexit was more popular among poorer voters. “Recipients of income support are substantially more likely to be in favour of Leave (by 20%),” the experts reported.

Regardless of their actual income, “those who described themselves as ‘finding it very difficult’ financially were 13% more likely to vote for Brexit compared to those who said they were ‘living comfortably’”, according to Metro.

In the years following the 2016 EU referendum, Labour’s increasingly ambiguous Brexit policy resulted in a sense of betrayal among working-class Leave voters, who instead gave their support to Johnson and his clear pro-Brexit message.

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The Corbyn paradox

Jeremy Corbyn, who led Labour into the last election, has spent his career campaigning against poverty and in favour of more state support for people on low incomes. 

His political support for the poor was not reciprocated, however, with the Conservatives building “a 15-point lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour among poorer Britons”, says The Independent.

Part of the problem was his party’s “conviction that people’s views reflected their class, and that the working classes were naturally left-wing”, says Eric Shaw, a politics lecturer at Stirling University, in an article on The Conversation.

In fact, many working-class voters saw Corbyn as “unpatriotic; unwilling to stand up for British interests; hostile to treasured institutions like the military and the monarchy; and too weak on terrorism”, Shaw adds.

Red Tories

The Conservatives also appealed to lower-income voters with their “levelling-up” economic strategy, which focused on investing in infrastructure across the UK and particularly in poorer towns.

That seemed like an ambitious goal even before the economy was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, says the Daily Mirror, “coronavirus has wiped out any hope of ‘levelling up’ the UK, with the crisis set to hit the north hardest economically”.

However, the government’s response to the pandemic has included a raft of policies – including widespread nationalisation and the state funding of private-sector salaries – that even Corbyn might once have considered too left-wing.

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And there may be more to come. A proposed rescue deal for Britain’s biggest steelmaker “would mean the state could end up with a stake in the UK steel industry for the first time since British Steel Corporation was privatised more than 30 years ago”, the Financial Times reports.

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