Briefing: Low-income voters, the 2019 General Election and the future of British politics

Briefing: Low-income voters, the 2019 General Election and the future of British politicsJoseph Rowntree Foundation
Matt Goodwin and Oliver Heath

Britain’s two main parties – the Conservatives and Labour – are undergoing a process of change prompted by a series of electoral upsets starting in 2016. The Conservative Party under Theresa May and now Boris Johnson has signalled its desire to embrace low-income, ‘left behind’ workers who were traditionally Labour-leaning. Labour under Sir Keir Starmer is trying to find its way to a workable accommodation between a set of diverse voting blocs that can propel it back to power. Neither can succeed without consulting the evidence.

This report draws on new data to explore these debates. Focusing on the general election of 2019, we show how the electorates of the two main parties have changed in profound ways. Low-income voters, who have been central to driving recent political change, played a central role in putting the Conservatives into power and Labour into opposition.

While Labour enjoyed a lead among low-income voters as recently as 2017, this has disappeared. Despite being in office for nearly a decade, in 2019 the Conservatives established a 15-point lead over Labour among people on low incomes. It is the first time in recorded history that the Conservative Party has outpolled Labour among people on low incomes.

Most of the Conservative Party’s new votes from low-income voters came directly from Labour. In 2019, Labour lost nearly one in three low-income voters who had turned out to vote for the party in 2017. By contrast, the Conservatives retained 90% of low-income voters who voted for them in 2017.

Remarkably, the Conservatives are now more popular among people on low incomes than they are among people on high incomes. The Conservatives are no longer the party of the rich, while Labour is no longer the party of the poor. The Labour Party that Sir Keir Starmer recently became leader of is today just as popular among the wealthy as it is among those on low incomes. Both parties have inverted their traditional support base.

In conclusion, while the Conservatives will need to work hard to retain support from these low-income voters, Labour urgently needs to revive its offer – especially given tentative evidence that it is low-income voters who, unjustly, will be affected the hardest by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the accompanying economic crisis.