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Be wary of YouGov’s finding that Britain’s voting intentions is classless

May 12th, 2018

It isn’t new, and it isn’t really backed up by other pollsters or elections

Class is supposed to define British politics. Perhaps that explains the flurry of surprise yesterday when YouGov’s latest poll gave the Conservatives a 3% lead among the C2DE group (43-40-7 among the main parties), and showed Labour doing worse with them than with the ABC1s (43-37-11).

We shouldn’t be overly surprised. For one thing, the sub-groups aren’t statistically balanced and the figures are close enough that it’s quite possible that Labour is actually ahead with the C2DEs; for another, YouGov consistently produce results more favourable to the Tories than, say Survation – which reported a 1-point overall Con lead yesterday, against YouGov’s 5-point margin; but also, and most importantly, that finding is nothing particularly new.

Before going there, a big word of caution: not all pollsters are finding the same thing. ICM’s last poll gave Labour a lead of about 5% with the C2DE group, despite an overall 3-point Con lead. Survation, though they don’t use the standard social group definitions, found a more traditional – and marked – split among income groups, and a very even set of results when voters are grouped by educational level. Mori, which does use the usual groups, reported even more distinct findings: a 6% Con lead among the middle-class and no less than a 17% lead among C2DEs (though the weighting changed a 4-point Labour lead into a 1% Con one overall, so we should perhaps apply a blue shift to those subsamples too). The same is true of ComRes. YouGov seems to be very much the exception.

All the same, while the company might be the exception, its poll isn’t. Go back before the last general election, to when the Tories were racking up big double-digit leads and again, they were clearly ahead with both middle and working-class voters. To take one example, the first poll YouGov conducted in 2017, which produced overall figures of 39-26 to Con (plus UKIP 14, LD 10), had an ABC1 split of 41-26 and a C2DE one of 37-27. Those findings are not unusual for the time.

This is where the assertion, made in the light of YouGov’s poll yesterday (and without reference to other pollsters), that “Corbyn is losing the working class” is a bit of a fallacy. He has already, within three years, lost it, regained it, and lost part of it again. Even if we accept YouGov’s subsamples, the 37% share they give Labour among the working class is still well above what it was in the first four months of last year.

In fact, whether or not the gap between how the classes vote has closed (or even reversed), what is clear is that it has been reducing for a long time. This tweet helpfully summarises Labour’s lead among the working class over the last 40 years. What’s notable is how that lead has shrunk when measured against the overall figures.

In 1992, Labour did 18% better with the working class than they did overall. Blair’s landslide changed nothing in that respect: it was still 18% in 1997. Come 2005 and it had dropped to 12%, in 2010 it was just 8%, in 2015 it was back up to 13% but in 2017 it fell right down to 4%.

We can explain the spike in 2015 as a consequence of working-class Tory voters defecting to UKIP; a phenomenon which lasted just one election. So while Labour certainly has a problem in retaining its traditional vote under Corbyn, that problem started well before him. (It is of course true that the reverse also holds: Labour might be losing working-class votes but it’s picking up middle-class ones to compensate).

In theory, this should mean that safe seats on both sides should be becoming less so, and indeed there is evidence of that, both from the general election and this recent round of local elections. We should, however, beware of being blinded by the exceptions. For all that Kensington or Canterbury were spectacular in the 2017 general election, or that London and the South East saw a relatively poor Tory performance while the Midlands and North generally saw a strong one for a party eight years in office, the great majority of seats did not change hands.

My gut feeling is that YouGov are out on this and the other pollsters are closer to being right (which also has to raise a question about YouGov’s top-line figures). However, while the trend it’s picking up on might be exaggerated, it is still there. That raises very interesting questions about all the parties’ strategies for the next election. It also implies that with both middle- and working-class voters leaving their traditional political homes, firewall seats won’t be anything like as safe as they once were – on all sides.

David Herdson