So in the 1920’s and 1930's what determined which people voted for between a Labour party whose ideology based on the twin principles of cooperation and equality of outcomes and a Conservative party with an ideology based on the defence and conservation of existing intuitions-most of all though not exclusively property.
One of if not the major new cleavage was between the middle class and the working class- or to put it another way those in non manual and manual jobs. The former were overwhelmingly Conservative the latter heavily Labour. These differences flowed naturally from many of their policy differences. The middle classes were the best off so would suffer from redistribution-while the working classes were much more likely to benefit from it. The middle classes included those who owned large chunks of the productive economy-who nationalization might hurt the same did not apply to the working. It’s worth noting that if one believed nationalisation benefited the workers in an industry-a very reasonable belief , industries whose nationalisation was proposed had overwhelmingly working class employees from the Miners to the Steel industries-industries like retailing there was much less support for nationalisation even in the Labour party. Finally of course in this period the middle classes were overwhelmingly non unionised and culturally fairly hostile to trade unions-it’s significant that what might be called middle class trade unions- for example the First Division Association (check) carefully avoided such names and associations. It was the working class that provided the bulk of trade union members. At the same time it was the middle class who by and large owned British held UK government debt as well as paid a disproportionate share of taxation-so the positive economic side of Conservatives was also more appealing... Even Protectionism most obviously helped elements of the middle class-particularly farmers and “cheap bread” was probably a less important requirement.
The Conservatives as mentioned did massively better than Labour in this period-including in the 1930’s when a “split in the vote” completely fails as an explanation. So how did the Conservatives do this? One factor was that some working class voters could be regarded as having very similar economic interests the middle class. Foreman were one direct example and almost certainly voted Conservative at levels rivalling the middle class one reason reflected perhaps partly in the old radical rhymme “the working class can kiss my aXXX I’ve got the Foreman’s job at last”. Servants were definitely another Conservative group though in this case the identify was indirectly-economic damage inflicted to the interests of the best off would obviously hurt servants indirectly-and arguably more than their employers (say if higher taxes led the fifth servant in a household to be fired). The safest Conservative seats in this period included ones in Westminster with a large majority of servants (they were also consequently among the most female –above 60%). They also helped increase the Conservative vote in Oxford which as late as 1945 the safest Conservative seat in Oxfordshire (now the successor seats are by far the least Conservative in that county). However foremen and servants only go some way to explaining how Conservative the working class was- in fact in the interwar period as a whole split very closely between the two parties (some estimates are the Conservatives actually won the working class vote in the 1930’s).
Party this was linked to another difference-heavily working class communities were massively and overwhelmingly Labour. The great Labour strongholds were areas like the Clyde side in Glasgow, Dagenham in London or the South Wales valleys where there essentially was no middle class. Crucially in these areas the working class voted much more heavily Labour than in the country as a whole. On the other hand in areas with a strong middle class minority were the working class also voted more conservative. In a sense Labour was supported by a working class sub culture which did not include all the working class.
The areas which were strongly working class tended to have other probably more important feature impersonal employers. That is they tended to be dominated by large institutions with enormous number of employers and lacked a personal nexus between employer and employee. This is often put down to “deferential” voting – the supposed desire to vote for social superiors which this writer is generally very sceptical. This also runs into the problems that election surveys (which it should be pointed out date to the 1950’s though the pattern of voting was very similar then) show that people with “deferential” feelings were no more likely to vote Labour. Stronger might be sympathy- in Dagenham for the average working class voter the middle classes would generally be an “other” with little close social interaction .In Westminster they were quite likely to live in the same household . Anyone who has worked at a low level for both a small firm and a large firm can probably identify that the latter is much less likely to be seen as a person for good or ill.
However again I think a lot of such distinctions can be explained by perceived economic interest. This can be seen by reference to the four sets of issues that defined Labour’s economic policy redistribution, nationalisation, economic planning and trade union reform. Workers for small employers would be more likely to see any effect on the incomes of the affluent as affecting their own fortunes. To put it another way it was natural for the employee of a small business to see the completion for resources as between that business and the rest of the country , while for a large impersonal one it was natural to see it as being between the “firm” and it’s employees. , while a large one was As already mentioned servants are an excellent example of this –but so too was the nascent tourist industry and indeed seaside towns also were fairly ardently conservative. With Nationalisation large impersonal employers – a miner was unlikely to lose their job (at least the short term) as the result of = there would still be a continuation of the firm just with new ownership (and in fact in many ways that was the model for many of the post-war nationalisations). In a bread and breakfast or similar though any rationalised planned system or national organisation would cut across thousands of small local compromises (so a women who worked two days at a bakers shop would she be sure she’d keep her job under “British Bread”). And the mind boggles of how the nationalisation of the domestic service sectorcould have been organised. To put it another way a government employer would be preferred to an impersonal employer but not necessarily a personal one now nationalization proposals (partly for some of these reasons) were overwhelmingly aimed at industries such as mining or the railways where impersonal employers were already the norm. But if the employees of such industries might support nationalisation in the hope of a better deal – any such “better deal” could plausibly be seen as being taken out of the incomes of those who used the railways or bought coal-that is the rest of the population. And they would of course pay for the taxes for any nationalisation programme.
The divisions over union policy can also be linked to this. Workers had less sympathy with impersonal employers and were more likely to see their interests as antithetical trade unions tended to be much stronger with impersonal employers –much stronger among the miners than servants, among car makers than those who worked in the resort industry. So the clashes over trade union policy reinforced further the tendency of the working class who lived in the most working class communities and worked in the most working class workplaces to be the most strongly Labour.
In a sense indeed it makes more sense to think of the electoral battle of this era being the organised (unionised) working class vs. the middle class or even against the rest of the country. In a straight middle class vs. working class choice Labour would win in a straight trade unionist vs. non unionist choice the middle class would win-in the interwar era elections came closer to the second model.. AT the same time the of minorities’ middle class voters and unionised voters were strongly mobilised making them much more overwhelming in their voting behaviour than the "unorganised" working class.
However even this recasting has its problems Firstly it’s hard to disentangle how much being “organised”- a member of the trade union was important separately from the factors given above-being part of a distinctive working class sub culture with (or in an area dominated by ) impersonal employers. Trade union membership fluctuated quite a lot in a way fairly independent of the Labour vote. Secondly it might be best to call this a battle between the “self conscious” that is the organised (or mobilised) working class against those forces wary of it. So groups who saw their interests as deeply antithetical to the organised working class-such as the middle class, servants or employees of small firms were more likely to be Conservatives than members of the working class who were just not unionised.
It can be seen how the differences between the domestic ideology the two main parties fit this kind of social cleavage. Those who belonged to the distinctive working class sub culture were attracted to the cooperation and equality offered by the Labour party-whether this took the form of expanded welfare benefits, the replacement of the “jungle” of capitalism with a new cooperative economy the nationalisation of their unpopular employer or the defence of trade union rights. The conservative ideology of conservation of existing institutions from fiscal balance to property, on the other hand appealed to those who feared such policies would endanger them and their country.
This kind of partisan choice was conductive to strong and increasing voting on lines of class and unionisation. This was in fact to continue after World War II into the 1950’s-the great exception was 1945 (when the Conservative vote among the middle class was “only” around 60%) an election dominated by “Munich” and housing issues that fit less well into such a profile. However from the 1950’s other issues whether the expansion of universal benefits or immigration would complicate such simple dividing lines and the sharp class division of mid 20th century Britain would fade somewhat.
It was also reflected in geography. The safest Labour seats (say the 52 that voted Labour in their overwhelming defeat of 1931) were overwhelmingly working class areas with impersonal employers. In these highly distinctive seats there was a distinct and strengthening working class culture based around trade unions but held by many who did not belong to them. Which mp’s represented such seats was often politically important. Atlee became deputy leader in 1931 (almost certainly key in becoming leader in 1935 because he represented Limehouse and so kept his seat when virtually every other member of the 1931 government had either been expelled or lost their seat (usually the latter) .This was not the same as the poorest seats – labour’s safest seats were not the most deprived in the country much less than today even though it’s support was much more based on the working class vote. This apparent paradox was really an explanation. The strongest elements of “working class culture” were not among the poorest- those who worked for impersonal employers and were best organised n trade unions were generally skilled workers whose skills had some commercial value-not the poorest of the poor.
The Tories had a much larger number of seats that were Conservative in every election in this period-around 200 or so. These varied a lot some very rural others middle class constituencies in large cities others urban. They all shared in common a very limited number of voters who worked for impersonal employers and were trade unionists-a fact that had implications for Tory factionalism as we will discuss in a future post.
As with geography a great number of cleavages of this period were simply reflection of this fundamental cleavage between a self consciously working class and those furthers from it. A classic one in this author’s view is that of sex the Conservatives were regularly weaker among men than women. This has often been blamed on “chauvinism” in the Labour party-and there is some evidence it was a rather more male party culturally and demographically. But I think it just represents the more fundamental cleavage of those who had a culture of working for an impersonal employer and those who were Firstly women were concentrated in industries such as domestic service or tourism whose employees were naturally firmly Conservative imagine a brother and a sister the latter a housemaid the former a . Secondly workers in the heavily major “impersonal” industries were more connected to the dynamics of the workplaces than their wives. Now for obvious economic, social and psychological reasons their wives were likely to share this but less so. (And single men would have no such) I think this explains the gender gap and any “chauvinism” of the Labour party reflected rather than caused this difference. After all the tendency of women to vote for the right was not that large – it was much bigger in continental Europe where the pious were much more likely to vote Conservative driving the gender gap wider.
That of course does raise an interesting question-what electoral cleavages that were not class or workplace based in nature. Were e there important issues which did not operate on a class basis and how did they work?
This picture is of Ernest Bevin. From working class origins and a trade union leader (in a trade with large fairly large corporate) his role as a Labour party titan reflected well the politics of this era both in his association with the labour party and his enormous power within it.