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Could Labour win the next general election with Jeremy Corbyn as leader? Conventional wisdom says: of course not. But three months ago, conventional wisdom mocked the idea that he could ever become leader. We should not dismiss the thought of Prime Minister Corbyn out of hand. This month’s YouGov research for Prospect examines two propositions that are central to Corbyn’s appeal: that Labour needs to reconnect with its working class roots; and that it is possible for the party to gain votes by moving to the left.
First, Labour’s roots. Manual workers and their families (the normal definition of working class) once dominated its vote. In the early 70s, the party had the backing of 10m of them, compared with two million of the middle class. Two thirds of all voters lived in working-class households.
Today, the balance is very different. Britain now has seven million more middle-class than working-class electors—and the working class is not just smaller but different. The decline of industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding and steelmaking, and the falling numbers of production-line factories, has battered working-class culture and institutions, notably trade unions. Labour’s hold on working-class voters has weakened. At the last two general elections, the party won more middle-class than working-class votes.
When Labour was founded a century ago, its main concern was the plight of working-class families whose incomes depended on private sector employers—a clear majority of Britain’s electorate. Now they comprise less than one voter in five. Today’s “working-class” voter is more likely to work for the public sector or a not-for-profit employer.
This does not mean abandoning the aim of reviving Labour’s working-class roots; it does mean redefining the task. Relatively few voters would be affected by new laws to protect exploited employees from bad private sector employers. More relevant would be new ways to resolve conflicts between workers who provide public services and those who rely on them (a conflict familiar to anyone who’s experienced a London tube strike). This means acknowledging the awkward truth that those who supply public sector services also use them.
It also means expanding the definition of working class, to include such white-collar workers…