Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 6 October 2018

How the left stopped being a party of the working class

I’ve been meaning for some time to write about a recent paper by Thomas Piketty, which looks at what characteristics influenced voters to vote for the left or right in France, the UK and US since WWII. (Simon Kuper has a nice little summary with a great title.) Here is a chart that shows how after WWII educated voters tended to vote right, but now tend to vote left (even after controlling for income, age etc - see box)

In all three countries, the number of educated voters increased in all three countries, reflecting in part the need for higher skilled workers.

In contrast (and if we exclude the most recent elections in France and the US) the income profile for voting has not changed very much over time: poorer voters are more likely to vote left than richer voters, particularly if we control for education, although poorer voters are increasingly unlikely to vote. So the shift in voting patterns among educated voters demands an explanation and has fascinating implications.

Unfortunately the paper does not focus on this question, but it does suggest that part of any explanation may reflect the fact that more educated voters tend to have more liberal attitudes in general, and more liberal attitudes to migration in particular (see here for example). The positive correlation between social liberalisation and education is well documented (see [1] for example), as was evident in the Brexit vote.

I suspect there are other factors as well. There are possible reasons why the interest of human capital (as economists would call it) are different from the interests of business or financial capital, or no capital at all. For example a more meritocratic education system suits them better than one where income buys education, so they are likely to be stronger supporters of a state based education system (or indeed they may be part of it). They will also be more likely to consume state subsidised culture. More generally there may be a wish to break down traditional class based networks and replace them with more meritocratic structures. On the other hand because human capital generates an income, they will be less keen on tax based redistribution than workers. All this may create what some might call an education ‘cleavage’.

The implication for parties on the left are that party members were increasingly from the educated middle class rather than working class, and this has gradually changed the structure, platforms and leaders of left parties. Together with the decline in trade unions, the counterpart to this will be a less visible representation of the working class. Piketty describes this as the emergence of the “Brahmin Left” elite, which can be compared to the “Merchant” elite on the right.

A consequence may be that the political elite as a whole becomes less interested in redistributive policies that used to favour the working classes, and helped continue the decline in wealth inequality before the 1980s that Piketty has famously documented elsewhere. That in turn makes it easier for the right to capture parts of the working class vote, particularly when these voters have socially conservative views. A recent book by Mark Bovens and Anchrit Wille takes a very dim view of these changes.

There is a less pessimistic take on all this. As right wing parties have increasingly relied on pushing socially conservative/authoritarian/anti-minority policies to gain votes, left wing parties find that this combined with wealth/income protection is an unbeatable coalition for their opponents. (Perhaps this helps explain the decline in so many centre-left European parties.) The only way to beat that coalition is to rediscover economic policies that help the working class.

This long paper has other interesting results. In France, like the UK, public attitudes have seen a decreasing hostility to immigration over time. He also notes that the right’s socially conservative turn has helped to sustain an almost complete loyalty to the left from Muslims in the UK and France, and from blacks in the US. Finally a parochial point of interest, which is also a point that Torsten Bell has stressed recently.

Piketty notes that the dominance of the left among the young in the UK in 2017, as well as being unprecedented in the UK, was higher than in any of the two other countries at any point in time. It may be that this is part of a trend since 1997, but it could be exceptional because of Brexit, which amounts to the old taking opportunities away from the young.

[1] Education-based group identity and consciousness in the authoritarian-libertarian value conflict. / Stubager, Rune. In: European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 48, No. 2, 2009. .


  1. ''more educated voters tend to have more liberal attitudes in general, and more liberal attitudes to migration in particular''

    You mean more indoctrinated / more susceptible to pressure to conform to accepting a 'high status' idea. In twenty years, when the demographic consequences have born fruit, they won't share these ideas.

    A double irony is that 'liberals' support the immigration of people whose social conservatism makes the values of the native working class look positively decadent. But since you live far far away from the consequences of your high flown ideals (you're daughter hasn't been gang raped or your son beaten black and blue by a Muslim gang), you can safely ignore this.

    I truly despise people like you.

  2. ''because of Brexit, which amounts to the old taking opportunities away from the young.''

    The opportunity to compete with half the world for a job or a bedsit?

    Older people voted Brexit precisely because they cared about their grandchildren and young people. I've heard it so many times: they've seen want mass immigration and hyper-liberalism has done to their country and they fear, rightly, for the next generation.

    You really don't live anywhere near the world that most people live in, do you?

    Young people like Labour at the moment because they think Uncle Jeremy is going to do something about all the loans they signed themselves up to. It's not socialism, it's self-ism. Prior to the tuition fee increases, the Right was congratulating itself that young people were more economically liberal (i.e. selfish) than ever.

    HowTF do people like you ever get anywhere near the top of academia?

  3. "Brexit, which amounts to the old taking opportunities away from the young."

    unless the young person aspires to be a nurse or doctor, in which case it has already delivered extra opportunities for them through increased student places.

  4. Many thanks for this.I think it makes the point that,politically at least, we can now take "middle class" to mean "with higher educational qualifications". I wouldn't know about US and F but this must be related to 1944Act ,the Robbins report and post 1992 univs. I wonder how increased Left vote relates to nos of undergraduates.? Somebody must have researched this!

  5. How much is the rise of Corbynism being driven by the declining monetary returns of education (as degrees lose their scarcity value), which means that educated young people at least no longer oppose large-scale redistribution of income?

  6. What exactly "working class" means? Specially attending that "In contrast (and if we exclude the most recent elections in France and the US) the income profile for voting has not changed very much over time: poorer voters are more likely to vote left than richer voters" (indicating that the traditional division remains alive). If "working class" is being used in the sense of "people without a college degree", or something like that, this probably will include also many "small bourgeoisie" (like small businessmen, shopkeepers, etc.).

  7. I loved that presentation by Piketty. It resonates with what Thomas Frank has been writing about the Democrats, that they represent something like the top 10% of the income distribution. Partly because they want their votes to avoid another Reagan, partly because upper middle class is now who they are, the leaders of the party.

    I voted Remain but I'm always frustrated by your claims about it. £10 billion net per year is similar to the amount of tariffs we're avoiding by doing that. The EEC/EU may be a factor in the deindustrialisation of Britain because of the competition slaughtering us rather than improving us; food prices up 20% (plus funding the CAP) and giving the vast majority of our fish away to continental fishermen; the huge political weapon immigration has given to the Tories; for an economic growth rate that is no higher than before 1973; none of this sounds like opportunities for the young.

    More like educated voters buy into pro-EU arguments because they are not small businessmen but may work for large firms and certainly own shares in them, or know that they do so indirectly via their savings. Wanting to avoid any harm to that wealth and income, they want to stay in to protect those profits, and like hearing that the EU is definitely good for the economy as a whole when that is ambiguous.

    Why the cultural stuff? Being anti-racist and anti-xenophobic is good, supporting mass immigration is not the same. But wanting to be discerning and knowledgeable goes with being educated, support for immigration can be sold to them (by broadsheets) as virtuous, and opposition to it is "social conservatism" rather than solidarity with their own country's working people.

  8. The obvious point here is that the ranks of the educated grew enormously, and both by design and by accounting identity, the new graduates were drawn from the working class. If you define class by education, the conclusion is implicit in the definition: a lot of workers got educated and aren't counted as such any more, but they still have the voting patterns you'd expect from their class background.

    More subtly, the working class has itself changed, and a lot of graduates should be considered sociologically working-class (they are anyway economically, being wage-earners employed by entrepreneurs), in which case this is just a statement that the university sector grew.

  9. I've been politically involved since the 1960s, so I've witnessed this dismal process unfold. Here are a couple of observations.

    In the 1980s, the Democratic Party started depending on corporate contributions to fund elections campaigns. Tony Coelho, a congressman from an agricultural district in California, helped lead this change from his position as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I think this led to more emphasis on social than economic issues.

    The decline in labor unions is a second part of the story. In the US, this really started in the late 1940s, during the Red Scare, when more progressive labor leaders were forced out of most unions. Thereafter, unions became more like insurance companies selling services to their members. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was an outstanding exception that kept the political climate in San Francisco more progressive than elsewhere. The later decline in large scale manufacturing of course weakened unions further, exacerbating the trend toward socially liberal but corporate friendly policies in the Democratic Party.

  10. Applicable to the US? About the only think that everyone from Neo-Liberals to "Socialists" in the US agree on is expanding health insurance and rolling back the Bush and now the Trump reductions in high-income taxation.

  11. On that graph: It could be because the young are the most likely to be un- or under-employed or otherwise in need of something like "economic policies that help the working class", and Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party is about the only traditional left wing party that seems to have in fact rediscovered these.
    I do agree with the general thesis--I think it's no accident for instance that Corbyn's Labour has moved to a much more aggressive policy platform that contains things which are directly targeted to helping the working class, and at the same time is the only European party of its type to gain rather than lose popularity in recent years--and that despite predictably relentless media campaigns against him.

  12. Oh come on, approve the comments even if it hurts your head to read them!

  13. You state that "Piketty notes that the dominance of the left among the young in the UK in 2017...".

    Does that mean the "dominance of the left" amongst all of the young ? Or only amongst the non-working class young ? Is the working class increasing, staying the same, or fading away ?

    Will there still be an identifiable "working class" in another 20 or so years ? And if there is, will that denote a major failure in Britain's "universal education" ?

  14. The paper was rich on data but not so flash on an analysis. plenty of opinions on this issue from a range of disciplines but the paper was already very long so maybe just presenting the excellent dataset was enough

  15. Maybe the way to forge an alliance between college and non-college working people would be to focus on taxes on wealth rather than income?


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