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Study Notes

General Election 1997 - Social Class and Partisanship

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 20 Nov 2017

Let's look in this study note at some key aspects of social class and partisanship as they relate to the 1997 General Election.

Class dealignment

In the early 1990s, a standard politics essay title was “must Labour lose?” and the reason for the question was not just the four election defeats from 1979 to 1992, but the idea that the UK had changed in such a way that Labour no longer had a core vote large enough to sustain an election victory. The idea was that because of embourgeoisement (people becoming more middle class) and the decline in traditional manufacturing industries and trade union membership, there was not a traditional working class big enough to bring the Labour Party an election victory. Some of Labour’s vote had always come from middle-class individuals, particularly those working in education and the public sector, but it was never a big enough constituency to give Labour a victory without a strong showing from the traditional working class.

A section of Labour’s traditional vote moved to the Conservatives in the late 1970s and 1980s, attracted by Thatcherism. Again, some working-class people had always voted Conservative, but this section of the party’s support base had grown significantly over issues like being able to purchase their own council house (which Labour opposed).

Mondeo Man

Mondeo Man was Tony Blair’s idea of the sort of person who had to switch from Conservative to Labour in order for Labour to win in 1997. He was in his 30s, married, owned his home (semi-detached), lived in the South East and drove a Ford Mondeo. He was also, critically, “aspirational”. He saw himself socially advancing in the years to come and was interested in political policies that would help that and reward that, rather than those that sought to redistribute money from the wealthy to the poorest.

In the 1980s and 1990s “Essex Man” had been presented as the bedrock of support for Margaret Thatcher and John Major: someone from a working-class background who had profited from Thatcherite politics and now had some money and aspired to make more. Mondeo Man was a similar character. Psephologists also talk about C1s – the aspirational lower middle class. These were identified as swing voters (and also often lived in marginal seats) and New Labour targeted them pretty ruthlessly and effectively.

Although voting in elections is a secret ballot there are a few ways in which we can get quite an accurate picture of how people actually voted in the 1997 election. One is because of the social demographic of different constituencies: if a party does particularly well in a constituency that is predominantly middle-class, for instance, that can give some indication. More detailed data comes from exit polls where a representative sample were asked about how they voted on leaving the polling station.

Exit poll data for 1997 shows:

  • Plenty of evidence of class-based voting, 41% of ABs voted Conservative (compared with 31% Labour) while 50% of C2s and 59% of DEs voted Labour, compared with 27% and 21% respectively for the Tories.
  • However, this disguises the trend from 1992. Among ABs, the Conservative’s vote had gone down by 15 percentage points, and Labour’s had gone up by 12. The same change had happened among the essential C1s (leaving the parties completely even on 37% each).  There had also been a significant shift to Labour among the C2s and DEs but not quite as dramatic as amongst those on higher incomes.
  • While the general trend of a large swing from Conservative to Labour is consistent with the overall trend of the election, the swing was stronger amongst the better off. Overall, the Conservatives were down 12 points and Labour up 9: a less dramatic swing than that among the ABs and C1s.
  • This data may slightly understate the swing to Labour as the exit poll predicted a slightly smaller Labour landslide than actually transpired on the night.

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