British politics is turning on its head, and nowhere more clearly than in the way working-class voters see the Conservatives.
Growing numbers are coming to prefer a party that in the past they viewed as
These voters are repelled by the party Labour has become – a ragbag of sectarian ideologues fighting among themselves, with no concern for the values that move the masses Labour once led.
The impact was shown in last week’s YouGov poll on voting and class. Forty-seven per cent of working-class voters are considering voting Conservative, a figure up more than 12 per cent on that of a month ago.
Growing numbers are coming to prefer a party that in the past they viewed as the voice of wealth and privilege to a Labour Party that has become the mouthpiece of a fashionably Leftish section of the middle classes
At the same time, only 27 per cent say they are supporting Labour. Meanwhile, 38 per cent of middle-class voters support the Conservatives, while support for Labour among them was 29 per cent (up five per cent).
These are striking figures. The Conservatives are expanding their support among working-class people, while Labour’s support among them is plummeting. Labour is becoming the party of the middle classes.
What explains this shift in working-class attitudes? In part it is a result of Brexit.
Labour’s unending ambiguity – which over past weeks has produced the Monty Python-like proposal that the party have two leaders, one Remain and one Leave – seems to many ordinary people sheer dithering, and the demand for a second referendum little more than an expression of contempt for people who voted Leave.
Apart from Corbyn (pictured today), who seems genuinely to believe the image he has fashioned of himself, no one is taken in. The millions of working-class Labour voters who mistrust and despise him are not fooled
But the shift runs deeper than Brexit and looks set to persist after Brexit is eventually done.
One reason is a change in the background of MPs. In 1945, when the great reforming Labour government of Clement Attlee came to power, around a third of Labour MPs came from working-class backgrounds. Today only around four per cent do.
The writer and broadcaster Bryan Magee, who died in July this year and was himself from a working-class background in Hoxton, East London, told me that the first thing he noticed when he became an MP in 1974 was that Tory MPs were on average several inches taller than most of his fellow Labourites.
No doubt this reflected the cruel divisions of pre-war Britain, where poor diet stunted many working-class children. But it also demonstrated that many Labour MPs came from the communities they were in Parliament to represent.
They knew from first-hand experience how working people lived, and had an instinctive understanding of their values.
They were unapologetic patriots, who loved their country even while they condemned injustice in it. They supported our Armed Forces, and did not make excuses for Britain’s enemies.
Consider a Labour leader like Ernest Bevin, the child of a single mother and who, despite having only a few years of formal education, became leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the highly respected and strongly anti-Communist Foreign Secretary of the 1945-1951 Labour government.
Then compare Bevin with Jeremy Corbyn, who grew up in a Georgian country manor house and attended an independent prep school and then a centuries-old grammar school.
Corbyn’s scruffy anorak and cap shows him trying to shed his rather posh origins and assimilate to what he imagines to be proletarian costume as it may have appeared to him in the 1970s.
Apart from Corbyn, who seems genuinely to believe the image he has fashioned of himself, no one is taken in. The millions of working-class Labour voters who mistrust and despise him are not fooled.
Middle-class Leftists, on the other hand, recognise him as one of their own – a man for whom patriotism is vulgar, and who thinks of terrorists as his friends.
Here, a second factor comes into play. The massive expansion of higher education in Britain over the past decades has created a sizable population of graduates with ultra-progressive attitudes, heavy loads of debt and decidedly uncertain career prospects.
Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance in the General Election of 2017 was partly a result of its manifesto promise to abolish student tuition fees, which would have cost public finances as much as £12 billion.
At the same time, Labour refused to unfreeze welfare benefits, a policy it considered to be unaffordable.
Plainly, Labour was targeting the middle-class youth vote at the expense of those who really needed help. The poor who had been hurt by years of austerity imposed by David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats were wilfully forgotten and left to fend for themselves.
Corbynite Labour has been described as a type of populism, and with its mass rallies and cult of the leader, the rise of Corbyn does have some striking similarities with Trump’s.
But this is populism for the middle classes, not working-class communities cut adrift with the decline of old industries.
It is also the populism of the lightly educated, who have absorbed an unreal view of the world in the universities to which they have gone in such large numbers.
For these graduates, the values that continue to shape working-class life are relics of the past. Nation states are anachronisms, and immigration controls implicitly racist. The future can only be a borderless world in which people move freely and live and work wherever they want.
Of course this is fantasy. With enormous disparities in economic development, living standards and welfare provision in different countries, people would move rapidly from poor to rich societies in large numbers.
There would be a massive backlash from voters, moderate parties would be overwhelmed and the beneficiaries would be the dangerous forces of the far Right. Yet a version of this fantasy was proposed last week by Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, when – in direct violation of Labour policy at the last Election – she committed her party to maintaining and extending freedom of movement.
A world without borders is an idea that appeals to middle-class graduates who think of themselves as global citizens rather than as belonging in any particular country.
It is largely this social group that forms the core of Labour activists and, to an increasing extent, Labour voters. In their own eyes, they have left behind the narrow prejudices of the past. In fact, Corbynite Labour is far more bigoted than Old Labour ever was.
Certainly, the antisemitism that has been institutionalised in the party under Corbyn’s leadership – so much of it stemming from radical pro-Palestine campaign groups – has nothing to do with the pubs and working men’s clubs of Sunderland or Hartlepool.
In the North East, where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, racism of this sort was practically unknown. In those days, working-class communities were tight and cohesive. Crime was rare and doors were not locked because everyone knew everybody else.
Yet these communities were not closed or bigoted. Partly through the influence of the churches, we were taught to respect anyone who was peaceable and hard-working whatever their religion or ethnicity. Much the same attitudes prevail today.
Working people have been demonised in recent years as backward-looking in their attitudes. Yet they have been, and remain, more decent and tolerant than the hate-filled ideologues who have taken over Labour.
The upheaval that is reshaping British politics poses a challenge to all parties.
Brexit has contributed to the meltdown that is unmistakably under way. Whether they think of themselves as Remainers or Leavers is more important to many voters than which party they used to support.
But the identity politics that emerged around Brexit have revealed an older politics of class at work in a new and surprising way.
Whether it be the public school Trotskyite slogans of Corby’s chief strategist Seumas Milne, or the convoluted lawyerly jargon of Keir Starmer, Labour speaks a language working people do not understand or trust. Labour’s leading lights are as far removed from the broad masses of people as the Tory Party was in the past.
Under Boris Johnson’s leadership, the Conservatives have a unique opportunity. In some respects their strategy of courting working-class voters continues that crafted by Theresa May’s adviser Nick Timothy, who grasped that party loyalties no longer reflected class in the way they did in the past, and aimed to create a bloc of working-class voters in the Midlands and the North. The strategy did not work as planned in 2017.
But the Conservatives have a new voice at the helm, and the disastrous Election campaign waged then is unlikely to be repeated.
Austerity has been junked, and the vital importance of public services recognised. As for Johnson’s Etonian background, the polls show that many working-class voters don’t give a damn. Labour’s sneering Leftists, who regard working people as fit only for Soviet-style re-education in politically correct attitudes, are deeply resented.
Could it be that Johnson is popular among working-class voters because he encourages them to be patriotic about our country – and to feel positive about themselves?
Most important of all, Johnson’s Conservatives realise how important it is to move on from the ghastly Groundhog Day of an unfinished Brexit.
At the last Election, old party loyalties proved stickier than expected and the shift to the Tories did not occur on a large enough scale.
This time could be different, with the supposedly backward-looking working class reshaping British politics in a historic switch of allegiance.