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The Tories shrinking class base

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One of the great changes in public opinion during my adult lifetime has been the collapse in Tory support from younger people and the ABC1s. For example, a recent YouGov poll (pdf) found that whilst the Tories have an overall lead of nine percentage points, they trail Labour by 57%-21% among 18-24 year-olds and lead by only 39%-36% among ABC1s*. By contrast, in 1992 – when their overall lead was very similar - they led 54%-22% among ABC1s and trailed Labour by only three points among 18-24 year-olds. To see the reason for this, you need only look as far as the universities’ strike. This draws our attention to another great development of recent years – the degradation of erstwhile middle-class work. Academics are protesting about the loss of pension rights, increased workloads,

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One of the great changes in public opinion during my adult lifetime has been the collapse in Tory support from younger people and the ABC1s. For example, a recent YouGov poll (pdf) found that whilst the Tories have an overall lead of nine percentage points, they trail Labour by 57%-21% among 18-24 year-olds and lead by only 39%-36% among ABC1s*. By contrast, in 1992 – when their overall lead was very similar - they led 54%-22% among ABC1s and trailed Labour by only three points among 18-24 year-olds.

To see the reason for this, you need only look as far as the universities’ strike. This draws our attention to another great development of recent years – the degradation of erstwhile middle-class work. Academics are protesting about the loss of pension rights, increased workloads, casualization and falling real pay imposed by managerialists. Spratt

And they are typical of many professionals. Journalists have suffered a massive loss of real pay and prestige in the last few decades: the best one can now hope for is to become a billionaire’s gimp. Criminal barristers, even with years of experience, make only around £28,000 a year. And doctors are stressed out and overworked in a way that Sir Lancelot Spratt never was.

It’s not just pay and conditions which have deteriorated. Housing is now unaffordable for young graduates even on good jobs. And there is an increasing gulf between what used to be the middle-class and the richest 0.1%.

A few decades ago, a moderately successful professional had much in common with the very rich: the difference in income between them wasn’t huge; both owned property; and both enjoyed autonomy at work. But there was a huge difference between them and the working class who suffered dangerous, dirty and mind-numbing work in factories and mines.

Today, though, the opposite is the case; a 30-something professional has more in common with a contemporary working in a dull job than she does with anybody in the top 0.1%.  

Very many ABC1s, then, are objectively proletarian – suffering from a lack of property, stagnating incomes and oppressive working conditions. And they are voting accordingly. Social grade is, increasingly, a worse way of defining class than the Marxian method of asking: what is this person’s relationship to the means of production?

This also helps explain youngsters’ antipathy towards the Tories. What’s going on here is what Alfred Hirschman called the tunnel effect. If you are stuck in a traffic jam in a road tunnel and then see a line of cars moving you cheer up, thinking that you will soon move. So it was once with young people. Back in the 80s, even poor students could reasonably look forward to a good job and property ownership. So they voted in the interests of the class they expected to join.

Today, things are different. Even bright hard-working students can expect only stressful, oppressive and poorly paid work, and to live in an over-priced hovel. And they are burdened with huge debt. Sure, much of this will be written off – but many young people are cursed by having a moral code which stigmatizes debt. It’s no surprise, therefore, that so many vote Labour.

All this explains why Tory support depends so much upon the legacy vote from older people and upon the populist slogan, “Get Brexit Done”. Their historic client base has shrunk. Sure, this legacy vote and populism might be sufficient to get them over the line next week. But the Tories’ longer-term prospects are surely poor. Like Ramsay Bolton being killed by his own vicious dogs, they are being killed by the neoliberal managerialism they themselves unleashed.

* It’s a common myth that the ABC1s exclude pensioners. They don’t. They only exclude those dependent upon the state pension. Better off pensioners are classified as belonging to the social grade matching their occupation when they were working.

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