THE job market has changed dramatically over the past 40 years. Some commentators believe that these occupational changes help explain Mrs Thatcher's success and Labour's long-term decline.
Labour has traditionally drawn most of its votes from working class people, particularly those living on council estates, and who belong to a union. It is this group which has been shrinking.
At the same time, there has been a marked increase in the number of salaried, non-union, home-workers, and owneroccupiers. These groups make up the hard core of Conservative support.
Some commentators assert that, because of these occupational changes, it is now almost impossible for Labour to win a general election.
In an article in the current Political Quarterly, however, Anthony Heath and Sarah McDonald warn against exaggerating the political effects of these social and economic changes. "In our view, social change should not be made the scapegoat for Labour's electoral failures. Nor is an appeal to non-union home-owners necessarily the only political response to social change".
To substantiate this view, the authors look at the occupational changes since 1964. They distinguish four occupational classes, and categorise these group of workers according to whether they are trade unionists, whether they own their own home, are council tenants or rent from a private landlord.
The petit-bourgoisie (composed of employers, and those who work on their own) is the smallest of all groups, but is the most strongly inclined to vote Tory. The salariat (made up of professionals and managers) has doubled in size, and makes up a quarter of the labour force. The non-union members vote heavily in favour of the Tories, but some of the salariat, particularly those in the public sector, are in unions.
It is amongst this unionised sector that the Alliance is strong. Heath and MacDonald believe this finding undermines previous studies, which emphasise the spread of the Alliance's support through all social groups.
The most heterogeneous of the four social classes is the one labelled Intermediate (whose ranks come from clerical and sales workers, together with foremen). One part, the nonunion home-owners, have a voting record similar to the Salariat.
In contrast, union members renting from local authorities vote similarly to their colleagues in the working class. Moreover, while the size of this class has not changed, there has been a shift in the balance, with non-union home-owners showing a big increase. While the size of the working class (composed of rank and file manual employees) has been shrinking, the authors caution reading too much into this trend. Even in 1964, union members living in council housing, the core of workers most likely to vote Labour made up only 10 per cent of the working class. Moreover, the political change brought about by owner occupation is somewhat minimised in the working class.
Those renting from a private landlord were always more likely than council tenants to vote Tory. It would appear that the ranks of home owners have been drawn from the privately rented sector. The new homeowners voted Tory before they took out a mortgage The study comes up with two very important conclusions. Firstly, the authors calculate what level of Tory and Labour support would be now if we had the same social structure as in 1964. The Conservative Party would have been expected to obtain about 35 per cent support amongst the electorate, Labour 40 per cent and the Liberals 14 per cent.
With the 1986 social structure, the Conservatives would have been expected to gain four percentage points, Labour to lose five points, and the Liberals to notch up their total by one point .
While these figures confirm the adverse nature of the social trends for Labour, they also show very clearly that more votes are won and lost through political fluctuations than through social changes.
The other important finding comes from asking voters to which party would they attach their second preference. This shows, perhaps rather surprisingly, that Labour draws second preference votes across a wide spectrum of the electorate.
Labour's policy of targetting key voters which the party needs to win next time may be misplaced, or at best inadequate. For Labour to maximise its chances of winning next time, it is crucial for it to once again develop an approach attractive to a wide social base.