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How can anyone working class vote Tory?

Photo by thegreatgonzo under a CC Licence.

In 1979, at the time of the general election, I was a sheet metal worker in a factory in the Black Country. I voted Labour, as I always had done. All to no avail. Margaret Thatcher romped to victory.

It was to be the first of three consecutive election triumphs for Thatcher and the Tories and they immediately set about unleashing unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism on the British public, its disastrous consequences still being felt today. And a crucial element in these Tory victories was the working class vote.

Working class Tories. What a contradiction in terms. But it is nothing new. Ever since working class people won the vote a large number of workers have voted for the Conservatives.

And the question is, simply, why? Why do they vote for a party that so clearly and consistently attacks their interests? What does someone eking out a living on the minimum wage or collecting benefits have in common with an over-privileged, multi-millionaire Tory politician? Absolutely nothing as far as I can see. But, somehow, the Tories manage to persuade gullible sections of the working class to help put them – and keep them – in power.

And they are still at it. Cameron, Osbourne, Lansley et al. Mostly Old Etonians, Oxbridge, filthy rich. That’s about as elite as it gets. Yet, again, working class people, tugging at their collective forelocks, voted for these toffs. Turkeys voting for Christmas. And the tragic (and this really is a tragedy) irony is that the present government is presiding over the dismantling of the welfare state whose whole premise was to provide a decent life for working class people.

It all seems ominously, and depressingly, reminiscent of some of the characters in Robert Tressell’s classic book: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Completed in 1910, it was a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working class people and their ‘betters’. The ‘philanthropists’ of the title are the workers who, in Tressell’s view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their bosses. Some things, it seems, never change.

For any working class person to vote Tory is nothing short of a betrayal. A betrayal of the workers who fought and died to create a better world for their class. And a betrayal of future generations of workers who will have to start all over again.

They have much to answer for.

Below photo by I See Modern Britain under a CC Licence.

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  1. #1 Charlie Mansell 12 Apr 12

    Same issue as why does Kansas vote Republican? Since it is not long-term economic benefit, it may be a mix of safety and security values reinforced by 'proximity judgments' and local social networks creating social norms in families and communities that massively overcome any form of class consciousness whether it is defined in 19c philosopher terms or more recently reframed 1% v 99% terms. Fortunately instead of just bemoaning it, we can now measure it to understand it better and reframe messages to actually communicate with those values to take people on a journey: and

  2. #2 Angus 12 Apr 12

    There is surely plenty of interesting discussion to be had about why people vote in such a way that is obviously not in their interests. It's a shame this article didn't delve into anything so troublesome as this. Instead it rants against working class people who vote Tory and repeats the same old 'elitism' cliches. There's nothing much new here. Presumably these people voting against their interests might be relatively easily swayed against the Tories. Articles like this won't help in that cause.

  3. #3 Danielle 12 Apr 12

    My grandfather was working class and as blue as they came. We used to joke that if a someone painted a turnip blue and it ran for parliament then he's have voted for it - he even agreed with us.

    There is a long standing tradition of working class Irish, of which my granddad was one, voting Tory. My granddad was very much a ’pulled myself up by the bootstraps’ kind of man and worked like a trojan every day of his working life. He hated the thought of charity and had to be talked into accepting benefits he was more than entitled to in his old age. As far as he was concerned you got what you worked for and this somehow resulted in him voting Tory, even through the Maggie years and the collapse of local industry - the same industry that has paid his wages.

    On the other side of my mother's family, they were all proper old Labour. My great grandfather was part of the original Labour movement and I know it pained him that his son-in-law was so anti-Labour. I also know I was glad he didn't live to see New Labour ruin what he believed in.

  4. #4 Nick 12 Apr 12

    Angus, this is a blog, not an article. And, yes, no real analysis here but I don't think that's the intention. Sometimes it's just good to put the question out there (which can sometimes spark off 'interesting discussion').

  5. #5 Somerandombint 12 Apr 12

    Perhaps because not all working class people are poor and living on benefits?

    As Danielle demonstrates so well in her description of her grandfather, there are a large number of working class people who buy into the idea that benefits are for workshy cheaters, and everyone should be made to work as hard as they have in order to live. I don't agree with that opinion, but I can understand their reasoning behind it. Thatcher's Tories seemed very appealing to the man in the street, working to support his family, and rewarded them for taking care of themselves. These people are far more likely to accept the notion of work = money.

    And it's just possible, whisper it, that some working class people vote Tory because they don't want to vote Labour. In all honesty, they haven't exactly covered themselves in glory in defending the country against the cuts. It seems a case of potato/potahto to a lot of people living on the breadline.

  6. #6 Phil Vanes 17 Apr 12

    What an absolutely brilliant piece of observation.
    Spot on

  7. #7 Joe Taylor 17 Apr 12

    But why do they do it? I've been trying to work that one out since I was a kid? Got any answers?

  8. #8 Alan 18 Apr 12

    Not sure what the answer is Joe. I would suggest it's a number of things. I know there's a lot of stuff been written about it, academics and the like theorising about the phenomenon.
    But, as I said in the blog, to get a real sense as to what is happening and where we are headed I would urge everyone to read Robert Tressell's book. To be honest, I still can't believe what is happening... that we are returning to those terrible times.
    And to those who think I am just some 'Leftie' slagging off some sections of the working class (and don't forget they are MY class) I would say wait and see my friends.
    The nightmare has only just begun.

  9. #9 Phil 05 May 12

    It's a question of identity which has become fractured in recent years. There have always been working class tories, yes but is it a question of where you want to be rather thAn where you are? Aspiring people may see themselves as tory. Concered middle classes as labour. But what does any of this mean when many people are concerned with constructing their own complex subjective identity and resent being labelled from outside by simple socio-economic classification. I do agree though that this plays into the hands of the wealthy as they seem to manage to get all sorts of people to vote for a government that seems hell bent of recreating victorian britain, at least economically. But this is not just against the interests of the working class but also middle classes Who have a lot to lose from a smaller welfare state. The only winners are the rich, who are relatively few. The real question is how have Labour allowed this to happen? I would suggest they need to stop messing around with the politics of identity and multi- culturalism and return to economics, something which is part of everyone's identity

  10. #10 Sarah Jackson 28 May 12

    That's it in a nutshell. If rich people vote Conservative and poor people continue vote Labour, then they'll always be poor. Only poor people vote Labour. The poor people living on sink estates, all overweight and scoffing on chips and burgers and smoking 40 a day voting Labour should try voting Conservative, then they too might one day be living in a big house in the country and sending their children to private school and feeding them on protein, fresh fruit and vegetables. One day they might too get a job where they make a contribution to society instead of sponging off of it and the wealthier having to pay for it all. As the old saying goes 'you ain't never gonna be rich voting labour'.

  11. #11 Anon 08 Jun 12

    “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
    ― John Steinbeck

  12. #12 David leckie 02 Oct 13

    although I am fiercely anti-Tory,my very good friend who is profoundly anti-catholic and favours the Tories and is of course dead set against Scottish independance This I think colours his attitude in politics because of his religious beliefs.

  13. #13 Mary Lane 07 May 15

    My sentiments exactly! Read your history books people!

  14. #14 Joe Miller 08 May 15

    It's aspirational in the same way as the American dream is. ’You too could be rich if you just worked harder.’ You can have your own house, your own independence, and make your own choices. It appeals to people's belief in their ability to control their own destiny.

    The left, for the poor, offers none of that. It offers struggle, and possibly slow, incremental improvement. More hard work. Easier to move out of the slums and make your own future.

  15. #15 Martin 08 May 15

    This blog's definition of working class as someone 'eking out a living on the minimum wage or collecting benefits', and a Tory as 'an over-privileged multi-millionaire' is puerile and vicious enough to explain why so many working people (like myself) have voted Tory.

    Get it into your head: class warfare of this sort is over. Choose a better tree to bark up, and you might not see the disaster over which Miliband is presiding today.

    Oh yes, and millions of workers voted for the SNP.

  16. #16 David J 09 May 15

    So why can't Labour persuade the ’working class’ to vote for them instead? The ’working class’ is shrinking and has been doing so since Thatcher came to power.

  17. #17 Philip Keeling 09 May 15

    1984, anyone? Big Brother Murdoch speaks.

  18. #18 AL PILLAY 12 May 15

    I BELIEVE that many working class people operate from a shame based agenda take showbiz examples such as cheryl cole, cilla black. Shirley bassey, Michael Caine ect,ect,that aspiring to establishment and poshness Absolves them in some way? Acts AS A COVERLETT for the embarressment of being a product of working class impoverishment of mind body and spirit in such cases, Whilst in another schizoid syndrome make out that WE CAME FROM NOTHING!LOOK! What we achieved...They are blinded by their confusion and cognitive dissonance. I CAN with hand on heart truly say i detest the NEUROSIS of a Tory..even now they continue to prove a point by frontlineing natal females and so called working class cabinet ministers{who try as they may will never be blue bloods}! SO MY LUVS FROM ETON! STILL SO TRANSPARENT IN ITS MOTIVATION...ALL IT PROVES is that tory is about being intouch with your inner nasty EVIL TWISTED TWITCHED F--KING BASTARD!...and knowt changes..

  19. #19 Sargeo Hair 12 Feb 16

    Martin (15) states that ’Get it into your head: class warfare of this sort is over’

    See his from IPOS Mori 2015 General Election review published in August 2015-
    ’ Labour only had a clear lead over the Conservatives among 18-34s, voters in social class DE, among private and social renters, and BME voters.
    2. Even worse for Labour, their vote share actually fell among those aged 65+, the highest turnout group, to just one in four. This group is where the Conservatives were most successful, gaining a 5.5 point swing from Labour since 2010. The Conservatives also achieved a 3 point swing from Labour among ABs, another high turnout group.’

    Thus, it seems that the class conflict you so dervive is actually alive and well.

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About the author

Alan Hughes a New Internationalist contributor

Alan Hughes was a graphic artist at New Internationalist. He retired in 2014. He is a life-long socialist and trade unionist and is currently involved in the Keep Our NHS Public Campaign. He is passionate about The Beatles and has supported Aston Villa FC for over 50 years. He lives in Oxford with his daughter.

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