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Political mindsets

Low-income voters in UK general elections, 1987 - 2017

Why are the voices of low-income voters of growing importance for political parties? Why do low-income voters feel no one party is representing them? How can party leaders tackle the injustice of poverty and embrace an agenda which unlocks opportunities for people on low incomes?

Written by:
Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath
Date published:

This report is one of the most comprehensive studies of low-income voters to date. There are seven key messages:

  1. Low-income voters are ‘up for grabs’ like never before. In 2017 Labour enjoyed their highest support among low-income voters since the heyday of Tony Blair, and the Conservatives enjoyed their strongest support among low-income voters since the era of Margaret Thatcher.
  2. Low-income voters have become more volatile over time. Today, they are less tribally loyal to one party. This means that they are more open to being persuaded to change sides; this further underlines why the parties should engage with them.
  3. Low-income voters are engaging in politics to a greater degree. Between 2015 and 2017, their rate of turnout increased by seven percentage points. This is the first noteworthy increase for 30 years. After a long period in which their political voice had diminished, low-income voters have become more involved in politics and want to talk to the parties.
  4. Low-income voters are feeling squeezed by changes in the economy. Today, they are just as likely to say that their households are struggling financially as they were during the 1992 and post-2008 crises. Furthermore, they are not sure who to blame for the current situation, which underlines how both Labour and the Conservatives could benefit by making a clearer case about how they will improve the economic situation of low-income voters.
  5. Britain’s main parties need to focus on this key group and refresh their offer. For Labour, this is necessary to retain their historic lead over the Conservatives, which in recent years has been declining. For the Conservatives, reviving their offer to low-income voters could help them build and expand upon their recent gains. To do this, Britain’s main parties will have to appeal to low-income voters’ desire for greater economic redistribution, as well as be sensitive to their values preferences. These voters are ‘cross-pressured’; they lean to the left on economic issues but often lean to the right on issues like law-and-order, migration and Brexit.
  6. Amid a volatile and divisive Brexit debate concerns to do with economic fairness between rich and poor are once again at the fore of voters’ decision-making. Older ‘left-right’ divides have re-emerged and are once again important. In terms of winning over low-income voters there are very good reasons for the main parties to redouble their efforts to offer more redistributive policies, especially amid Britain’s ongoing Brexit debate.
  7. All of these findings and the implications for the main parties were reflected at the outcome of the 2017 general election. Labour was more successful in low-income Britain because they tapped into the left-wing economic views of low-income voters. They can build on this success, but they need to be mindful about low-income voters’ attitudes towards crime and law and order, as well as Europe, and think about how they can bolster living standards. The Tories have considerable potential among this group because they are closer to low-income voters on issues like Europe and crime. If the Conservatives switch toward an economic message that has more resonance among low-income voters they could unlock even more support.
Ballot papers being counted during an election.

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