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The Secret People

by John O'Sullivan

Working-class voters on both sides of the Atlantic have been forgotten

‘What about the workers?” That was the traditional cry of Labour hecklers in Britain to disrupt a Tory orator and to imply that his policies ignored the interests of the working class. A fine specimen of the genre can be found in an early Peter Sellers sketch in which the suave-tongued Tory rides mellifluously over the interjection with, “What about the workers, indeed, sir,” before smoothly resuming his recital of inoffensive platitudes.

The phrase has been rarely heard in recent years, and almost never from Labour speakers. Even before the advent of Tony Blair and New Labour, Britain’s main party of the Left had become more a polytechnocracy than a workers’ collective. And the “workers by brain” had an attitude of suspicion toward ordinary working-class people: They had heard in Sociology 101 that the latter were racist, sexist, and homophobic.

Some doubtless were, but most even of those were also relaxed and tolerant people. Or so I thought growing up among them. And they were once the bedrock of support for both major parties.

Almost everyone knows that working-class votes accounted for about three-quarters of Labour’s national total for the first 30 years after 1945. Less well known is that they also accounted for roughly half of the Tory vote. (Overall, the working-class vote split two to one in favor of Labour.)

Two people changed all that. First, Margaret Thatcher made further inroads into Labour’s “heartland” with her blend of patriotism and aspirational economics; second, Tony Blair encouraged indifference among those workers still around by earnestly wooing the “progressive” middle class employed in the public sector, the media, and finance.

Class voting patterns fluctuate with every election, but some long-run trends are clear. Skilled working-class voters split their votes between the parties almost randomly; the Tories won the largest share in 2010 with 29 percent. The poorest voters still lean left but by a much smaller margin: A modest 40 percent of them voted Labour last time. The turnout rate among all working-class voters is about 20 points lower than among the middle class. And turnout in general seems to be falling. Britain’s workers are politically homeless and looking for somewhere new to cast their ballots.

Cross the Atlantic and the statistics tell a surprisingly similar story — one that the Democrats have already noticed. Statistics for the 2012 election show that working-class voters swung slightly to Governor Romney, that white working-class voters swung more heavily to him, that this latter group swung less heavily to him in the northern industrial Rust Belt states where the key electoral-college votes are, and that overall white turnout fell by 2 million votes. The overall result was that Romney got a larger percentage of a smaller vote — and a smaller percentage of that vote in the states where it mattered most — and so he lost by a modest margin.

There were, of course, short-term factors: As a venture capitalist who had closed failing enterprises and was effectively caricatured as an industrial vampire, Romney was not the ideal candidate to win over the working-class “Reagan Democrats.” But that short term is over. Recent polls show that support for President Obama, in addition to falling overall, has fallen sharply among low-income voters and those without college degrees. And that fall has been precipitous among white voters with those characteristics that are a reasonable proxy for working-class status. America’s blue-collar voters, like Britain’s, are no longer tied to their traditional party. They are in play.

More than anything else, the reason for this is a set of policies that alienate them. Last year the leftist New Statesman drew its readers’ attention to this: “As the authors of the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey put it: ‘[In recent years] economically comfortable and culturally more cosmopolitan groups show little change in their assessments of economic impacts [of immigration], but economically and socially insecure groups have become dramatically more hostile.’” To immigration one should also add welfare and “Europe.”

With minor translations into American English — “Europe” becomes “national sovereignty” — the same holds true for the U.S. All of the proposed immigration reforms are damaging to the interests of America’s blue-collar workers (black and white) and deeply alienating to them. It is a minor mystery why the GOP, riding a wave of hostility toward Obamacare, threatens its success by seeking to support another massive government “reform” — and one, moreover, that actively undermines the economic interests of the one substantial voting group leaning in its direction. Only Senator Jeff Sessions has grasped this point clearly — and argued it eloquently.

The absence of blue-collar workers from Tory/Republican calculations and their deliberate ejection from Labour/Democratic hopes are symptoms of a wider exclusion from public life. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, a distinguished constitutional scholar, recently published a study, “Reforming Public Appointments,” in which he pointed out that British “equalities” legislation making ethnicity, gender, and disability justifications for “protected” status and its compensations had no reference to social class. Partly as a result, the share of working-class MPs in Britain has fallen to 4 percent, and the official panels that select public appointees (for judgeships, etc.) do not contain a single blue-collar or manual worker. Affirmative action in the U.S. has a similar impact on blue-collar whites. It presents an increasingly severe obstacle to their advancement and social mobility as immigrants swell the ranks of protected groups.

More and more, wealthy and powerful Americans will never meet their working-class neighbors except as waiters and doormen. Brit though I am, I believe that’s downright un-American.

This exclusion leads to an ignorance of what these individuals are like. Self-conscious “progressives” on both sides of the Atlantic begin to see them as hopelessly reactionary, xenophobic, nativist, etc. Tories and country-club Republicans see them as economically backward and lazy compared with their low-wage immigrant competitors. Earlier in the Conservative modernization campaign, the Cameronians seriously discussed “dissing” their traditional supporters in order to show centrist voters that their hearts were pure and cleansed of “nastiness” on matters such as immigration.

Both parties in Britain got their message across all too well, but, alas for them, not to centrist herbivores but to the supposedly carnivore workers. As a result, they are leaving Labour but not joining the Tories. Instead they are now joining more traditional Tories in voting for the United Kingdom Independence party. UKIP is now seen as likely to win Tory votes in the southeast and Labour votes in the north. (A forthcoming special election in the north will test this theory.)

It is hard not to see this as a punishment for snobbery in England — and as a timely warning to the GOP.

In short, the attitude shown all too often by Republican and Tory leaders reminds one of the upper-class Guards officer who, being asked at a cocktail party what the experience of the Dunkirk retreat had been like, replied:

“My dear, the noise! And the people!”

But at least he wasn’t asking for their votes.

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