“Labour is the party of the working class”
That was the claim from Jeremy Corbyn this week as he gave a speech to party activists in Wakefield.
But is it true?
How do we measure “class”?
There’s no universally accepted definition of class, but social scientists have made various attempts to approximate it. One method is asking people what class, if any, they feel they belong to.
Alternatively, we can use the “NRS social grades” system, which was developed in the 1960s by the National Readership Survey, and classifies people according to their occupation.
You’ll often hear statisticians using the NRS system talk about “ABC1s” and “C2DEs”, which are described as “middle class” and “working class”.
Are Labour voters working class?
The British Election Study, considered the “gold standard” of UK political surveys, asked voters: “Do you ever think of yourself as belonging to any particular class?”
Labour voters are more likely to say they are working class than the average voter. They’re slightly less likely to say they are middle class than the average voter. And it seems Labour voters more strongly identify with a class (working or middle) than the rest of the population.
Source: British Election Study, 2017
So when it comes to how Labour voters think of themselves, it’s a mixed picture.
Labour voters are more likely than the average voter to say that they’re working class. But the majority of Labour voters do not consider themselves working class – partly because so many say they belong to no class at all.
How popular is Labour among working class people?
Let’s look at this from the other direction: does Labour attract working class voters?
More than half (55.5 per cent) of the people who told the BES that they consider themselves to be working class also said they voted for Labour in 2017. That’s significantly more than the self-described working class voters who plumped for the Conservatives (31.3 per cent).
Source: British Election Study, 2017
So when it comes to attracting self-described working class voters, Labour seems to have the upper hand over the Conservatives.
The Conservatives did much better than Labour among people who don’t consider themselves to belong to any class at all. Half of these self-described “classless” people voted Tory in 2017, compared to 33.7 who opted for Labour.
There are some important caveats to the data we’ve used thus far – most obviously that asking people to define their own class is highly subjective.
We can’t rule out the idea that Labour voters might be more likely to self-describe as working class – perhaps out of loyalty to the party – even if their actual economic conditions would put them in the “ABC1” or “middle class” category under the NRS social grades system.
Have we got any more objective measures?
A YouGov survey sampling 50,000 British adults from 2017 gives us some insight. Using the “ABC1” and “C2DE” grades rather than self-described class, they found that Labour is actually less popular than the Conservatives among working class voters.
These figures estimate that 42 per cent of C2DE (working class) people voted Labour at the last election, while 44 per cent voted Conservative.
A 2017 Ipsos MORI poll, also using the ABC1 and C2DE grades, showed the same pattern, concluding that “the middle classes swung to Labour, while working classes swung to the Conservatives”.
What about Labour members?
So far, we’ve been looking at the class profile of people who voted for Labour in 2017: but what about the paid-up party members?
We spoke to Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary’s, University of London, who runs the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project. He told FactCheck: “Labour members are definitely more middle class than the average voter.”
His research shows 77 per cent of Labour members fall into the ABC1 (middle class) category, compared to a national average of 62 per cent.
But the same research shows that official members of the four main parties (Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP) are all more likely to be middle class than the average voter.
When asked if they consider their party to be middle class or working class, members of all parties are, as the Party Membership Project reports “rather reluctant to go with the former”.
On a scale of “1 = middle class” to “5 = working class”, Labour members gave their party an average rating of “3.3” – so, slightly more working class than middle class. The Conservatives’ rank-and-file settled on “2.7”, which is somewhere in between. But again, we should note that this is a subjective measure.
Jeremy Corbyn says that Labour is the party of the working class. No doubt part of what he means is that his party looks to support working class people and represent their interests.
In terms of the demographics of Labour voters and activists, though, the picture is mixed.
People who voted for Labour in 2017 are more likely than the average voter to say that they’re working class. But the majority of Labour voters do not consider themselves working class – partly because a significant chunk say they belong to no class at all.
It’s fair to say that of the major parties, Labour is the most attractive to self-described working class voters. But on a more objective measure of class – occupation – the opposite is true: the Conservatives won over more working class voters in 2017 than Labour.
When it comes to party members, Labour’s rank-and-file are significantly more middle class than the average voter. But they are still less middle class than Conservative members.