How can politicians win back low-income voters?

The last two years have made the political establishment question long-held assumptions about what the British people think, and how to win their support.

Now a new programme of analysis uncovers some of the underlying drivers of these shocks – and shows what politicians of all stripes need to focus on to win back support among low-income voters.

The Brexit ‘double whammy’

In 2016, our work with Professors Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath unpicked the referendum result. It showed the divide between people on lower and higher incomes and living in places with concentrations of high or low skills. People on low incomes with low skills were much more likely to vote leave than those who were better off and higher skilled. But people living in low-skill areas were more likely to vote leave even if they personally had higher skills or incomes. A crucial dynamic of the vote was the ‘double whammy’ faced by people whose lack of qualifications put them at a disadvantage in the modern economy, and also lived in areas with few opportunities.

The referendum result persuaded both main parties that they had to pay more attention to voters on lower incomes and in marginalised places. In the 2017 General Election campaign, the Conservatives talked about ‘ordinary working families’ and focused on appealing to voters’ support for Brexit and immigration control. The Labour party sought to appeal to the same voters’ economic concerns about living standards and austerity.

Stalemate: Brexit and immigration vs living standards

In June 2017, both parties increased their support at the General Election among low-income voters by eight percentage points but neither made a conclusive breakthrough. Those on low incomes were still more likely to vote Labour, but by a smaller margin than might have been expected – 42% voted Labour, but 37% voted Conservative. The Conservatives made substantial advances in former Labour held seats in places that were struggling economically, non-metropolitan and pro-Brexit. But the party did not make enough progress in those places to push them from red to blue. That left both parties with a problem. The Labour party won support from younger, highly-educated voters, but did not re-establish their position as the dominant party for either the working class or those on low incomes. The Conservatives made progress, but still had much stronger support among those who are financially better off. Forthcoming analysis will dig into the trends that are shaping voting in Scotland.

Our new research shows how deep these problems go – and what the post-Brexit offer has to look like to pack the required political punch among low-income voters.

The research combines survey data with qualitative research to find out more about the views of people on low incomes and the day-to-day experience that underpin them. Two main lessons standout from the research:

1. The Conservatives still have much stronger support among richer groups – but the Labour party is no longer secure as the party of those on low incomes.

The survey (carried out in 2016) asked which, if any, political party people support - 46% of those in the richest fifth supported the Conservative party. That proportion became steadily smaller among people on lower incomes - only 23% among the poorest fifth supported them. By contrast, Labour party support was fairly even across the whole income distribution - 30% in the poorest fifth, 32% in the middle fifth and 27% among the richest fifth. The most striking finding was in those who said they did not support any party: only 6% of the richest fifth but nearly a quarter (24%) of the poorest fifth.

Support of a political party, by income group

2. We need a compelling offer from Brexit for people on low incomes.

Along with immigration (an important element driving support for Brexit), the top concerns of people on low incomes were money and debt, health, caring, housing and work or finding a job. All except work ranked as higher priorities for this group than immigration. These topics were of higher concern to those on lower incomes than the better off, particularly money and housing.

Six most frequent concerns or worries among lowest income quintile

The qualitative research uncovered more about the reasons for this anxiety about money and debt, the way it could dominate day-to-day life, and some of the ways people coped when struggling to make ends meet. Coping strategies included going without food and borrowing from family or friends. However, some also spoke of the limits to what they could expect from family or friends, and the social isolation they felt as a result of their financial strain.

Things are definitely getting worse. Money just doesn’t stretch. My money is swallowed up on more expensive food bills, higher electric….
Male, online focus group

The impacts of cuts in benefits and problems with the benefit and tax credit system loomed large for some on low incomes, even when in work.

Some felt that the stigma associated with being on benefits separated them from others and even made them wary of seeking help for fear of being see as a ‘scrounger’.

I’ve never got any of my mental issues diagnosed apart from the ADHD as I don’t want people to perceive it that if I did get benefits for those things I’m scrounging.
Male, 18-24, Derby

Finding and keeping work which enabled them to support themselves and their family was a high priority for many. They worried about stagnating wages, rising costs, insecure jobs and the possible effects of automation on employment opportunities.

Participants in the research project talk about their experiences of poverty in the UK.

When asked in the survey about who has the power to improve their situation in relation to these issues, most people felt able to do a lot or a little about them, particularly about their physical health. However, very few of those in the poorest fifth felt able to do a lot to address their worries about immigration, crime, housing or education. The qualitative research also suggested that people may know how they could improve their health, but they did not necessarily feel able to take those steps. Some explained that healthy eating and exercise felt like unaffordable luxuries when they were ground down by daily struggles and felt that their mental health was at risk.

The survey showed that the vast majority of the population believed that the government is responsible for providing health care, a decent standard of living for older people and decent housing for those who can not afford it. This support is fairly uniform across income groups. One exception is housing where people in the richer two fifths of the population are less likely to feel it is a government responsibility than those in the poorer three fifths. Despite this clear support for government action on these areas, there is much less clarity about how it should be achieved and paid for.

Views of government responsibilities, by income group

The qualitative research illustrated the depth of frustration felt by those who were struggling to get by and believed that politicians were not addressing the real problems facing them every day. It also showed the importance of dealing with the urgent problem of falling living standards among those on low incomes, even when in work, for any party that hopes to satisfy this important group of voters.

We live in a country that has foodbanks. We didn’t even have them in the 80s when it was the miners' strike. Give people more money they’ll spend more money – I can’t understand why politicians don’t understand that. ​
Female, 45+, Scarborough

The recent political shocks demonstrate the need for a new national mission to transform the prospects of those struggling on low incomes. Politicians must offer a radical plan to achieve this if they want to end the political impasse. A new offer should include:

  • An end to the freeze on benefits and tax credits to ease the strain on low income families hit by rising costs.
  • Support for those in work, letting them to keep more of what they earn, and help for those stuck on low pay to improve their skills and ability to progress at work.
  • A new generation of truly affordable homes to rent and buy.
  • Rebalancing national spending to help deliver inclusive growth across the country.

The party that seizes this agenda could be more likely to secure a parliamentary majority at the next election.

Quote source: Latter, J and Carn, J (2017) 'Social Attitudes in 2017 – Qualitative research into the issues that concern those on low incomes', London: YouGov