We're told that the story of Stoke and other similar working-class constituencies is the advance of Ukip; yet more important is the advance of ‘none of the above’. Turnout in by-elections is notoriously low, and Thursday will be no exception, but even at the last general election fewer than half the electorate voted in Stoke. This was not always the case. Turnout in Stoke was barely six per cent below the national average in 1987, yet in 2015 it was 16 per cent lower. This is just a weak reflection of the growing divide in political participation among people in different social classes. While differences in turnout between rich and poor were fairly minimal 30 years ago, today the middle classes are much more likely to vote than the working class. This is what has caused large falls in turnout in working-class constituencies like Stoke.
This growing class gap in turnout is not due to changing voters, but changing parties. While differences among social classes in political attitudes have remained very constant over the last fifty years - to put it crudely, poorer people still want more redistribution and less immigration than richer people - the parties, especially Labour, have changed enormously. Labour in the 1960s was a party with leaders who spoke about representing a working class from which the party's MPs were drawn and Labour's policies were aimed at helping. Much of that was still the case by the end of the 1980s, but over the course of the 1990s that all changed. Labour adopted policies that were aimed at middle-class voters and started speaking not to ‘workers’ but ‘families’. All parties are also now represented in Parliament by people drawn largely from middle-class professional jobs. Predictably, these changes have affected who votes for different parties. While over 60 per cent of the working class voted Labour in the 1960s, at the last election Labour actually did better among middle-class professional voters than among manual working-class voters.
Where did those working-class voters go? In recent years, some have decamped to Ukip, often via other parties in between. But many have turned their backs on democracy altogether. Up until the 1992 election, differences in turnout among social classes were fairly small - a few percentage points at most. This changed rapidly between 1997 and 2001: New Labour in the 1990s may have been very effective at attracting middle-class voters, but what was attractive to the middle classes was unappealing to the working class. With no other working-class parties in view, working-class voters chose to exit the system. In fact, the proportion of 1997 Labour voters who stopped voting in 2001 was twice as great among the working class as among the middle class.
By 2001 there was a growing gap in turnout between the classes, which has now turned into a chasm. In 2015, over half of people with low levels of education in working-class jobs did not vote. The comparable figure for degree educated professionals was one in five. The new party of the working class is not Ukip, but no party at all. This should be worrying because parties only care about people who vote, and people who stop voting are difficult to entice back into electoral politics. This leads to a spiral of exclusion: parties do not represent certain types of people, those people do not vote and parties become even less likely to represent those non-voting groups. No matter what the result is in Stoke on Thursday, without some radical change to the party system, which might include a more credible Ukip, this new class divide in British politics will continue.
James Tilley is a Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. He is the author of The New Politics of Class: The political exclusion of the working class