The Working-Class Imperative for Labour and Democrats
Lessons from recent public opinion research by the Progressive Policy Institute.
Readers of The Liberal Patriot will be familiar with the argument that the Democratic Party needs to reverse its decline with working-class Americans if it is to create durable governing coalitions—or even win at all, judging by the current state of the polls.
This argument has also been playing out in British politics over the past few years. The Labour Party, historically the party of the working class, was comprehensively defeated by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives at the last UK General Election in 2019. Labour’s fourth successive electoral defeat was all the more painful for the loss of what became known as the “Red Wall” seats, a phrase coined by Conservative pollster James Kanagasooriam to describe parliamentary constituencies who voted Conservative for the first time in their history.
But the reality is that Labour had been losing support amongst working-class voters for two decades, and until Keir Starmer became leader in 2020 it was insufficiently focused on winning over new and traditional working-class voters to the party. Starmer appears to be reversing that decline, according to research by the Progressive Policy Institute, which commissioned a comprehensive poll of working Americans and working-class Brits ahead of the double U.S. and UK elections in 2024. YouGov’s research for PPI shows that Starmer’s Labour are on course to win a majority of working-class voters once again—but Labour’s six point lead amongst this group is narrower than amongst the general population, with polls showing Labour at least 15 points ahead of the Conservatives amongst all voters.
Center-left parties all over the world have struggled to build sustainable electoral coalitions, particularly in Europe where support for social democrats fell dramatically following the 2007-08 financial crisis. But they are starting to see signs of revival as the political right fails to live up to the promises made on the campaign trail. And the modern working class remains central to the electoral prospects of the center-left. Analysis by Professor Oliver Heath for PPI shows that far from the base of social democratic parties moving uniformly to middle to upper earners, those on low to middle incomes still tend to form the social base for winning center-left parties around the world—with the exception of the U.S. Democrats, whose base has shifted towards college graduates.
Starmer is unapologetically leading the UK Labour Party towards being the party of working people again, with a pro-worker, pro-business agenda which aims to unite an electoral coalition of working and middle-class voters behind it. That has required Labour to stand firm on questions of national security and defence, recognise voter concerns about immigration, and reassure voters about its economic credentials. But to win voters’ trust, Labour will have to convince them that not only are they not a risk but that they offer hope for the future.
The working classes of America and Britain have distinct origins, identities, histories and cultures. But the U.S. Democrats and the British Labour Party share a common problem: working-class voters, the historical political base for both parties, have been moving away from them, leaving both parties with a sizable electoral challenge in securing governing majorities. More accurately, the parties have moved away from working-class voters across ethnicity and geography, and not just the traditional working-class but the modern working class (which I wrote about in the UK in The New Working Class) forms an important political battleground. New research by PPI sheds light on where today’s working-class voters are at, and how center-left parties can win them over.
Over and over again, working-class voters in PPI’s research said they felt little optimism for the year ahead and for the prospects of the next generation. They said they got less in return for working hard than they did a year ago, and felt young people today would be worse off than their parents’ generation. They felt that the deal whereby if you worked hard you could get on in life had broken down—and they are not wrong.
The striking commonality in U.S. and UK working-class voter responses is their discontent with their current economic condition. The high cost of living is top of mind for working-class voters in both countries, reinforcing a belief that they are not the ones to benefit from economic progress. Looking back over the past 40 years, 66 percent of working-class Americans say they believe the working class is worse off. When asked why they felt worse off, Brits cited rising costs from energy to food, to the cost of housing, to lack of good opportunities that made enough to save. Typical responses said things like:
Because at least our parents’ generation knew that there would always be employment and if they left one job they could literally walk into another, whereas today 1 in 3 working people are a month away from losing their homes if they become unemployed.
And simply: “Because the average wage is lower comparative to the current cost of living compared to the previous generation(s).”
Whilst few Brits cited immigration as the reason why they felt worse off, immigration and asylum was ranked the second most important issue overall, even ahead of the pressurised National Health Service; working-class Americans also make toughening their position on immigration their top ask of Democrats. Working-class voters are particularly concerned about levels of illegal immigration, and in the UK, they were overall more negative than positive about the effects of immigration on economics, culture, and life in general.
When it comes to climate, technological advancement, and social issues, working-class voters want to see a balanced approach. The environment does matter to working-class voters, with relatively few saying they do not think action on climate change is necessary (19 percent in the UK, 34 percent in the US). But it is not as high a priority for them as it is for younger voters. Moreover, they have clear views that “people like me” should not pay the cost of policies to reduce emissions. It seems obvious to even say it, but for working-class voters the price of a car or heater is far and away the biggest determinant in consumer choice rather than its emissions or whether it’s made in the U.S. or UK.
In both the U.S. and UK, parental involvement is seen as critical over sensitive questions like gender identity of young people. The so-called ‘culture wars’ are not as pervasive in the UK as they are in the U.S., and UK working-class voters don’t prioritize issues like teaching critical race theory in schools and free speech at universities compared with bread-and-butter issues like bringing down inflation and improving healthcare access.
So what can all this data tell us about how the U.S. Democrats and UK Labour can win over working-class voters? First and foremost, there is no way to a sustainable governing coalition without securing larger numbers of working-class voters. They cannot be sidestepped or tacked onto a party predominantly aiming its message at and aligning its identity with college-educated urbanites. There can be a winning alliance of the two, but coalition-building has to start with the working-class and build out from there. The vocal, college-educated will always speak up for themselves, so any winning center-left has to go after non-college voters first.
Second, center-left parties need to advance a new economic agenda that re-forges the bargain that if you work hard you can get on in life. Many working-class people feel the link between working hard and being fairly rewarded has broken down, and the center-left needs to be relentlessly focused on how our policies can raise people’s wages and bring down their costs. We can see from the voter response to Biden’s ground-breaking infrastructure program that investment as an input, as necessary as it may be, is no substitute for economic policies that directly benefits people’s everyday finances. This means policies to reward work, opening up training and skills development opportunities for non-college workers, and stabilising the supply and costs of essential goods and services—including housing.
Third, we need to address people’s need for security as well as opportunity. A critical part of this is controlled and managed immigration, along with financial security, lower crime, strong national defence, and more reliable public services. In both the U.S. and UK, working-class voters are pragmatic rather than hardline on immigration, but they also want to see borders under control, illegal immigration curtailed, and a basic sense of fairness restored. Much of the populist right pressure on center-left parties in Europe stems from concerns about immigration. With greater displacement likely in the near future due to climate change and geopolitical instability, we need to have concrete policies to restore control at the border as well as meet the economic, social, and cultural opportunities and challenges that presents.
The center-left can lead the way in devising a new political and policy program to remake society’s basic deal with working people, one which both rejects the dogma of unfettered markets and embraces the innovation and dynamism of open economies. With the continued threat of right-wing populism looming over the coming European elections, it is a vital task. But meeting it has to start with a political strategy based on the centrality of working-class voters, tuning into their identities, interests, and desire for a better tomorrow to bring back hope in an age of insecurity.
Claire Ainsley is Director of the PPI Project on Center-Left Renewal at the Progressive Policy Institute, and former Executive Director of Policy to UK Labour Leader Keir Starmer, 2020-22. The project launched in January 2023.