A spectre is haunting the developed world—the spectre of working-class discontent. All of the West’s established political parties—Conservative and Labour, Christian Democrat and the Left, Green and Liberal—are inclined against it. And yet it continues to grow and gather steam, fracturing and reordering politics in virtually every country.
If this seems melodramatic, consider the facts. Working-class-based protest parties now garner between 10 and 25 per cent of the vote in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. UKIP looks poised to break 15 per cent of the vote in the UK general election next month, and Germany’s AfD is polling above the 5 per cent threshold needed to enter the Bundestag.
The Anglosphere has not been immune to this trend. Australia’s governing Liberal-National coalition rode working-class discontent with Labor to a massive victory in 2013, and the governing centre-Right parties in New Zealand and Canada, National and the Conservatives, have achieved their majorities by a similar focus. Even the United States, whose exclusively two-party politics is unique among the large developed countries, approaches its 2016 presidential election with all major candidates conspicuously competing for working-class white voters.
In Europe, this trend has led to political convergence between traditionally centre-Left and centre-Right parties. Both sets of parties find elements of the working-class agenda unacceptable, especially the opposition to the EU and immigration. These countries’ proportional representation systems thus give working-class parties a voice, but the subsequent formation of a governing coalition leaves them out in the cold.
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This option is not available, however, in the Anglosphere. The Anglosphere’s reliance on district-based elections means working-class concerns cannot be ignored. Centre-Right parties must choose: either adapt to woo the educated, urban greens and social democrats, or adapt to woo the newly disaffected workers.
Australia’s Liberal Party is currently mired in an internal controversy that is, in effect, simply a version of this worldwide debate. For all the mistakes the Abbott government has made, the Liberals should resist the temptation to adopt the urban, green-tinged strategy. That approach ignores Australian political history, which shows that the Coalition can win only when it splits disaffected working-class voters from Labor. It also ignores the cautionary tale from the United Kingdom, where David Cameron’s determined ten-year effort to rebrand the Tories as the party of the modern educated person has dismally failed.
Working-class discontent everywhere has unique national aspects, but virtually all of its national expressions share a few defining characteristics: opposition to immigration, distrust of or opposition to multi-national entities like the EU, support for the traditional family unit, tougher approaches to crime, and a blend of tax cuts and spending hikes. Most observers find these parties or movements confusing, as their demands do not fall neatly within the traditional Right–Left debate. That debate, however, is chiefly focused on the legitimacy of government power. Working-class demands are quite consistent with one another if the debate is viewed through another angle, that of justice.
The workers want three things: comfort, dignity and respect. They want to be considered the equals of those better educated and better off: they do not want to be patronised or have their lives planned for them, whether by bosses or bureaucrats. They want the opportunity to succeed on their own terms, which for most means living a quiet life with family, friends and non-demeaning work. They want economic help to give them the means to advance, which translates into support for quality education. They also want assistance to navigate the vicissitudes of the business cycle, which means an extensive welfare state. Finally, they want not to have to worry that they will die or fall into penury if they cannot work, whether by accident or through old age. That translates into pensions, health-care subsidies and disability schemes that prevent people who work hard and play by the rules from sinking into poverty.
Together, these policies give the working class the comfort and dignity they desire. The final key to understanding their psyche—respect—can best be understood by the phrase “work hard and play by the rules”. If public sentiment values work and playing fairly over results, then the working class feel their lives are respected. Giving financial support to those who don’t work or don’t play by the rules means the sacrifices the working class make are disrespected in favour of people who seem not to have earned what they receive.
This attitude extends upward and downward in the socio-economic spectrum. Immigrants or refugees who are given material benefits or are favoured for employment without having previously participated in national life are viewed as undeserving by the working class. So too are people with higher socio-economic status who obtain their wealth from social contacts or taxpayer bailouts rather than enterprise and work.
Workers who are given comfort, dignity and respect will support centre-Right parties even if other elements of those parties’ agendas are not their priorities. Thus, they will support lower taxes for corporations and the well off, so long as the cuts do not come at the expense of programs they value. They will support higher defence spending and vigorous participation in international alliances. They will support smaller growth in government spending and economic modernisation that does not unduly threaten their comfort, dignity or respect.
Australian and British political history demonstrates how important these working-class voters are to political success, especially in the last twenty years as attitudes since the fall of the Berlin Wall have made upper-income voters less afraid of supporting the centre-Left.
Australia’s Coalition has relied on working-class voters to win national elections since 1955, when an anti-communist, largely Catholic group split from the ALP to form a new party. This entity became known as the Democratic Labor Party, and it regularly directed its preferences to the Coalition throughout its existence. So supported, the Coalition won every federal election until 1972 even though the ALP usually had significantly more first-preference votes.
The DLP’s policies were a forerunner of today’s working-class movements. It was strongly supportive of domestic welfare-state spending, but also strongly supportive of anti-communist foreign and defence policies. In power, the Coalition did not remove those welfare-state measures then extant but were not forced by the DLP to make swift increases either. Instead, the DLP and the Coalition compromised, the DLP getting a strong anti-communist foreign policy and support for Catholic priorities in return for its preferences.
Australian politics changed when the second major element of modern politics, the leftward trend among the educated elite, started. When the ALP moderated its 1940s-era socialism and resistance to anti-communism, support for the DLP began to ebb. Simultaneously, disaffected Liberals formed the Australia Party, which directed its preferences to the ALP. The ALP won nearly every federal election between 1970 and 1995, losing only from 1975 to 1980 after the removal of Prime Minister Whitlam by the Governor-General. No longer hurt by working-class disaffection, they won on the strength of preferences from the elite-backed Australian Democrats, the successor to the Australia Party, who supported environmentalism, social liberalism and non-Thatcherite economics.
The Coalition’s return to power came when John Howard forged a modern version of the Menzies-era strategy of splitting the working-class vote. Howard directed the gains from Australia’s private-sector-led economic boom into targeted subsidies for the working class to purchase private sector health-care insurance and send their kids to non-state schools. Under his leadership, the Coalition also increased payments for children in working-class families and opposed unlimited settlement for refugees. The Coalition won four consecutive elections with support from the group that became known as “Howard’s battlers”.
The Coalition lost when it broke faith with those voters through its promotion of the WorkChoices legislation. While the program sensibly reduced the power of labour unions and gave management more flexibility in dismissing workers, it angered the battlers because it seemed to unnecessarily reduce their job security. The Coalition lost the 2007 election largely on this issue, despite an unprecedented sixteen years of continued economic growth.
As Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott led the Coalition to a quick resurgence by adapting Howard’s basic model. Abbott insisted that the Coalition oppose the ALP’s carbon emissions scheme, despite internal opposition, in order to split working-class voters—who would pay much more for electricity under the plan—from the Greens-backed ALP government. He also refused to allow conscience votes on same-sex marriage, again despite internal opposition, a stand that found support among backers of Family First and disgruntled working-class voters. His insistence on “stopping the boats” also showed the battlers that the Coalition, not the ALP, was really on their side.
One can overstate the degree to which the Abbott-led Coalition changed the battlers’ minds: informal voting was up significantly in working-class seats, suggesting many workers were unwilling to choose between the two parties. Nevertheless, the Coalition’s near-win in 2010 and its landslide in 2013 would not have been possible without the resumption of the Menzies–Howard decades-long strategy of embracing working-class concerns.
Many Liberals remain unconvinced, preferring the party to move to the centre on these issues in an attempt to gain support among the less-leftist urban, younger voters who have been tempted to back the Greens or the ALP. In effect, they support the same strategy employed by David Cameron to modernise Britain’s Conservative Party. The results of Cameron’s experiment, though, suggest such a move is unlikely to succeed.
Cameron assumed the Tory leadership after the venerable party had suffered its third straight election drubbing in 2005. Party leaders and members alike were impressed with an analysis that showed voters liked many of the Tories’ policies—until they were told those policies were the Tories’. Cameron and his “modernisers” decided they had to detoxify Conservatism by showing the Tories weren’t stuck in the 1950s or the Thatcher era.
They were nothing if not methodical in pursuit of their goal. Out went the Thatcher-era Tory emblem, the torch of liberty coloured in the red, white and blue of the national flag. In came a shady tree in soft blue and green tones. The new logo seemed to tell Britons they could rest in comfort if only they trusted the Tories to lead. The tree had another implication, that the Tories would back green policies. Cameron’s Tories quickly became backers of carbon emissions controls and environmental protection.
The new Tories also changed on family policy, backing same-sex marriage and embracing multicultural outreach. Cameron insisted that Tory candidates standing for parliament had to be much more diverse in race and gender than previously, and his team recruited women, blacks, Asians and Muslims to stand in safe and key marginal seats.
The Tory rebranding was an obvious attempt to replicate what Tony Blair had done for the Labour Party in the mid-1990s. After Labour’s fourth straight defeat in 1992, Blair convinced it to ditch its long-standing, if unacted-upon, pledge to re-nationalise British industry. It launched a “New Labour” campaign to show Britons that they could be socially liberal, support private-sector wealth creation, and vote Labour. Cameron’s strategy was effectively an attempt to show these voters that they could have that combination with the Tory Party too.
One can see more clearly what Cameron was trying to do if one looks at British electoral history through the lens of class. Ipsos-Mori has published a summary of British voting habits from the October 1974 election, won by Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, through to the last election in 2010. It shows that the Tories regularly won over half of the upper and middle-class vote (known in British social science as the ABC1 class) from 1974 through to the last Tory win in 1992. That share dropped precipitously to 39 per cent in 1997, and continued to drop to a mere 37 per cent in 2005. The Labour share of the ABC1 vote increased from 22 to 34 per cent in 1997, and remained at or above 30 per cent throughout Tony Blair’s prime ministership. It was not unreasonable for Cameron to think that the Tories could gain back that vote, and perhaps dig into the substantial ABC1 share voting for Britain’s centrist Liberal Democrats, if he moved the Party as he did.
Cameron’s strategy proved to be a colossal failure, however. In 2010, with a weak and hapless Labour Prime Minister in Gordon Brown and with a collapsed economy providing wind to the opposition’s sails, the Tories failed to win an absolute majority of seats. Moreover, their share of the ABC1 vote barely budged, increasing to only 39 per cent. Labour’s share of that vote was down only two points and the LibDems’ share of the vote was unchanged.
Cameron and his advisers had overlooked the crucial role that working-class voters had played in the electoral success of the Thatcher–Major era. The working-class vote in Britain can be broken down into the upper working class (skilled workers, known as C2s) and the lower working class and the poor (semi-skilled workers, known as DEs). The Tories received only 26 per cent among C2s and 22 per cent among DEs in the 1974 race. Those totals increased to 41 per cent and 34 per cent in 1979, fuelling Thatcher’s landslide despite only a small increase among the ABC1s. Moreover, C2 and DE support remained high through four elections, never dropping below 39 per cent among C2s and 30 per cent among DEs.
The Tories lost this support in 1997, dropping to 27 per cent among C2s and 21 per cent among DEs in 1997. Unlike the ABC1 vote, which continued to drop slightly through the Blair era, the Tories started to win back some of that support under the more rightist leadership of William Hague and Michael Howard. Support in 2005 climbed to 33 per cent among the C2s and 25 per cent among the DEs.
Ironically, Cameron won his plurality in 2010 largely because of shifts in the votes of these two classes. Tory support swelled to near-Thatcher-era levels of 37 per cent among C2s and 31 per cent among DEs. Labour support dropped even faster, to a mere 40 per cent among DEs and a frightening 29 per cent among C2s. Many of those voters supported two working-class third parties, the British National Party and the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Today, Cameron’s Conservatives remain mired in their post-1997 despair, currently polling around 33 per cent in the run-up to next month’s election. That’s what the Tories received in 2005, a total considered disastrous by Cameron and his allies. Their share of the ABC1 and C2DE vote is also roughly equal to 2005, 39 per cent and 25 per cent. Ten years of rebranding towards the urban centre has done absolutely nothing to change public support for the Conservative Party.
Polls clearly show why this is so. They find that the biggest negative the Tories have is the idea they are the “party of the rich”. This view drives away socially-conscious upper-income voters and downscale working-class voters. The socially-conscious upper-income voters remain locked in their support for Labour and are moving towards a newly influential Green Party (although this is largely counteracted by the LibDems’ collapse). The downscale working-class voters have now moved lockstep to UKIP. Nearly as many C2DE voters, 22 per cent, say they will vote for the upstart populist party as say they will vote for the Tories. In Britain’s first-past-the-post system with no preferences, this move will likely cost the Tories dozens of the seats they picked up from Labour in 2010.
This working-class desertion has surely been reinforced by Cameron’s own upper-middle-class (“posh”) upbringing. I visited Britain in March 2013 to see what I could learn from Cameron’s effort for American conservatives, and met with a leading former Tory (now independent) pollster. I mentioned that to an American ear, Cameron condescends when he speaks, making it sound as if he expected people to be grateful for what he and the Tories, their betters, were going to do for them. I told the pollster it seemed he was stuck in a modern version of the old English class system, which demanded deference from the lower classes. This ran contrary to Thatcher’s real innovation, I said, which was to treat Britons of all classes as equals. The pollster responded without hesitation: he said that when people don’t have to defer they find that they want to. One suspects that the C2DE voters whose support put Cameron in Number 10 would not have agreed.
This distaste for the working class has been echoed by many in Cameron’s world, who have rarely been shy about calling UKIP voters “fruitcakes”, racists or representatives of “the past”. They are entitled to their views, but by making them Tory policy they have, in turn, made an alliance between Labour and the Scottish National Party the likeliest outcome of next month’s election. Cameron’s rebranding, by driving away voters who were willing to support a genuinely rebranded Tory party in the vain pursuit of a bygone, class-based era, will have served only to usher in the most left-wing government Britain has had since 1945.
Issues of social class are less important in Australia. Nevertheless, the analogy holds. Upper-income, educated voters not already voting for centre-Right parties do not shift their support when those parties move towards green and socially liberal orthodoxy. That’s because those voters also hold centre-Left views on economics, favouring more intervention and social spending than do centre-Right partisans.
Working-class voters not already voting for the centre-Left, however, will support centre-Right views on defence and the economy provided they are neither culturally belittled nor financially ignored when spending cuts or restraint must be sought. As Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has made many mistakes, costing him and his government support among all social classes. When considering how to move forward, however, the Liberals should, as we say in the States, “keep their eyes on the prize”. If they do, if they focus unrelentingly on winning back the trust of the battler class, they will likely be rewarded in the 2016 federal election.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at a United States think-tank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He studies and comments upon electoral trends worldwide.