Brexit: working class revolt or middle class outlook?

Brexit: working class revolt or middle class outlook?

Jim Butcher

Many commentators and academics emphasised the importance of the working class vote to Leave in the 2016 referendum, some regarding Brexit as a ‘working class revolt’. But recently a number of people have challenged that view, arguing that the Brexit vote should be principally associated with middle class opinion.

Both arguments often draw on the same widely used ‘NRS’ system of categorising social class. This divides the population into 6 categories, A B C1 C2 D and E, the first 3 taken to be ‘middle class’ and above, and the latter 3 ‘working class’.  The short definitions are: A -Higher managerial, administrative and professional; B – Intermediate managerial, administrative and professional; C1 – Supervisory, clerical and junior managerial, administrative and professional; C2 – Skilled manual workers; D – Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers; E – State pensioners, casual and lowest grade workers, unemployed with state benefits only.

So how do academics and commentators drawing on the same data categories make such apparently contradictory arguments?

The view that Brexit was a product of middle class opinion is strongly associated with Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson’s recent book Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire and is repeated by many others such as academic Gurminder Bhambra and journalist Joyce McMillan.   They cite the statistic that around 59% of total Leave votes came from ABC1 (associated with the middle class) whilst 41% came from the lower three social categories (associated with the working class). Bhambra argues that ‘the evidence suggests it was the backing of the white middle classes that secured [Brexit]’. McMillan despairs at the association of the vote with the working class, stating that ‘In vain have experts pointed out that nearly 60 per cent of Leave voters belonged to the ABC1 class and income groups’.

However, before accepting this narrative we should note three things.

First, more people fall in the ABC1 range (55%)  than in the lower classifications of C2DE (45%), so, other things being equal, you’d be more likely to get a higher number of votes from this ‘middle class’ demographic. Notably this begs the question: are the working class now in the minority, as the NRS classificatory system suggests?  Whilst there is no fixed measure of working or middle class, most sociological discussions unsurprisingly tend to view it as a majority in society. For example, the Great British Class Survey developed by the LSE’s Mike Savage and colleagues has a putative working class and poor in the majority, at around 63% of the population (made up of precariat, emergent service workers, traditional working class, and new affluent workers).

Second, people in ABC1 are more likely to cast their vote. This has been a consistent pattern in UK elections in recent decades. There are various reasons as to why this is the case, such as the lower chance of poorer people being registered to vote, and also a lower likelihood that they see much point in voting.   Social policy theorists have long recognised that relative economic exclusion can, especially when poorer people may feel there is not much on offer for them, coincide with a sense of political exclusion. So the ‘middle class’ demographic will yield a higher number of votes in proportion to its size.

Third, it is highly debateable whether ABC1 is commensurate with ‘middle class’ at all. The C1 category includes a range of occupations including secretaries, nurses, people working in sales, supervisors, junior managers and teachers. It also includes full time students who work part time – hardly a group who would consider themselves as ‘middle class’. Whilst A and B categories can more reasonable be described as middle class and elite, C1 just doesn’t fit the bill, and being the largest demographic comprising 29% of the population, distorts the picture greatly if aggregated with A and B voters to make up the ‘middle class’. It is simply misleading to lump students working part time for Deliveroo and nurses together with company bosses and partners in a law firm.

The apparent anomaly that students, nurses and office workers can find themselves ‘middle class’ is because the NRS categories are not designed as a measure of social class at all. It was intended to measure readership habits by social grade –NRS stands for ‘National Readership Survey’. That does not mean it can’t be useful when looking at voting demographics, but in the context of this particular discussion it is misleading.

The trend over the last 50 years has been for the skilled manual workers of C2 to decline in their share of the population, and for the professionals in B and the administrative, supervisory and other occupations in C1 to rise. In the early 1970s only about one third of the population fell in the ABC1 ‘middle class’, whereas now those categories contain the majority of the population. This tells us something important about the changing face of the UK economy and workforce.

However, it reflects less a shift from working class to middle class, and more changes in the composition of the working class itself. By the 1980s it was widely understood that the working class could no longer be considered as those working in manual occupations associated with the C2 and D classifications. A growing proportion of the workforce was in sales, services or were students – occupations that are generally included in C1. Notably, the average income of those in the C1 category is only slightly higher than the average for C2.

These are three very significant caveats on the use of NRS derived data to associate Brexit with middle class sentiment.

But what of the claim that Brexit is a working class desire?

The Leave vote comprised: 41 per cent of AB votes cast; 48 per cent of C1 votes; 62 per cent of C2 votes and 64 per cent of DE votes. An oft quoted alternative poll has almost identical findings, with Leave gaining 51% of C1 votes, leaving only AB – the elite, professionals and higher managers – with a Remain majority. So a large majority of working class and poor people’s votes cast went for Leave. Other figures show that 60% of unemployed peoples’ votes cast, 63% of those of social renters and 70% of those from people defined as without qualifications went for Leave.

These figures all show, unequivocally, a clear association between working class and poorer people who expressed their view at the ballot box, and voting Leave.

So what is at the root of these very different narratives derived from the same NRS data categories? Basically, the proponents of each view are asking quite different questions. Dorling, Robinson and Bhambra are asking ‘where did the leave vote come from’, an entirely fair and useful question. But the demographic scale that categorises the ABC vote as ‘middle class’ is, as I have argued, misleading in this context, and skews the answer significantly. So the claim that ‘most Leave votes came from the middle class’ is only true when nurses, PA’s, sales staff, students working part time and so on are placed alongside company directors and partners in law firms as ‘middle class’.

Also, for balance, if we argue that the majority of Leave voters came from the middle class thus defined, we should probably add that the same is true of the Remain vote, only considerably more so.

Those associating Brexit with the working class tend to ask a different question: ‘what was the view of the working class expressed at the ballot box’. This question, unlike the former one, treats the referendum as a contest between two positions, rather than the desire to leave in isolation. That seems to be a more logical framing, as the vote, and indeed politics itself, involves  a substantial  choice between competing alternatives. The EU referendum was not about Leave, but about Leave versus Remain.

This question also enables us to compare the vote within any given demographic, so we can say definitively that working class votes went in substantial majority for Leave, and middle class substantially for Remain.

Ignoring this comparative approach and focusing on the total vote for Leave in isolation from the Remain vote has led to false assertions, inevitably on social media, but also more substantially too. Indeed, Bhambra’s assertion, referred to earlier, that ‘the evidence suggests it was the backing of the white middle classes that secured [Brexit]’, is untrue. Take away the white middle class vote, and the victory margin for Leave would have been greater. When a national newspaper quotes Danny Dorling stating that: ‘It’s a common myth that the lower class swung the pendulum in favour of Brexit – this much is fallacy’, it is they who are making a fallacious argument. Categories C2,D and E did each vote majority Leave by a fair margin, and so definitely swung the pendulum in that direction.

So which narrative do we choose? Of course, both have merits, and also there are many other relevant questions to ask about the vote. The danger is that in an atmosphere of tribal politics and bitter divisions, we simply choose the one that fits our prior narrative. But it seems entirely reasonable to emphasise that Leave was the preference for working class and poorer voters by a substantial majority, and Remain the preference for middle class voters also by substantial majority.

It is fair to argue too that the majority of Leave votes came from a ‘middle class’ of ABC1 voters, but only with strong caveats. These caveats are important, and without them the claim can mislead:  members of this ‘middle class’ are in the majority in society, are more likely to vote,  actually voted in substantial majority for Remain (especially its richer members, AB voters) and include a very large number of people who are a pay packet or two away from poverty (some C1 voters, who were evenly split between Leave and Remain).

A final caveat on both narratives should be borne in mind, one relevant to any discussion of the demographics of any vote: demography is not destiny. No one’s hand is propelled by their social class when they walk into the voting booth and make their mark. Too many discussions of demography treat the voter as determined by their demographic characteristics, rather than as an individual deciding for themselves in the light of evidence, guided by their own values and desires. In fact, a substantial number of people from every demographic – by class, region, ethnicity, gender or age – voted for each of the two options on the ballot paper respectively. Democracy is not the product of any one class or demographic, but the right of every citizen.


Jim Butcher is reader in the School of Human and Life Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University