James Frayne: Sunak’s wealth doesn’t matter for working-class voters. His tax rises do.

12 Apr

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

English working-class voters are the Conservatives’ electoral base. They are also a group struggling badly as living costs rise. With this in mind, what do working-class voters think about class, wealth, and posh politicians?

Specifically, we should ask what they will make of coverage surrounding Rishi Sunak’s tax status and residency. Here are some thoughts from many years talking to working-class voters across England. 

1. English working-class identity is real. Class has dropped off politicians’ radar, with attention shifting to cultural identities. But class defines how vast numbers of people think about themselves, their communities and life choices.

Indeed, such is its hold, working-class identity remains strong even as wealth has spread and traditional working-class professions have changed. It’s therefore reasonable to ask what they will make of a rich Chancellor in times like these, and reasonable to ask how they will react to coverage.  

2. They respect hard-work – and therefore aspiration and deserved success. The clue is in the name: those identifying as working-class respect hard work. In doing so, they respect aspiration and success. Relatively few working-class voters share the Conservative vision of social mobility, happy as they are with their lot (economically and socially).

But they respect, for example, those who make big sacrifices to build businesses, to send their children to private schools, and so on. There is no English equivalent of the American Dream; but the English working-class aren’t hostile to those that work hard to achieve their own success or status. 

3. Unfairness drives them mad. Their respect for hard work reflects their obsession with fairness. It’s fair those that work hard succeed. Conversely, it’s unfair those that don’t want to work hard (as opposed to those who genuinely can’t) get support. It’s fair that people who can afford it are taxed more; but it’s unfair those who work hard are taxed disproportionately more. Measuring fairness is an inexact science, but it’s strongly felt. 

4. They don’t understand the rich. The English working-class have little understanding of the lives of the very rich, and particularly those whose wealth derives from finance. They don’t know who they are, what they do, where they live, where they eat, or where their kids go to school. This is crucial to understand.

After the financial crisis and the cuts that followed, much more working-class anger was directed at welfare recipients – rightly-or-wrongly perceived to be undeserving – rather than, say, “bankers”. Why? It was because seemingly claiming welfare wrongly were in their communities, while those that were primarily responsible existed only in theory and couldn’t be easily imagined. 

5. They support the royal family and accept the primary aspects of an aristocratic culture. While the English working-class admire those that achieve success by working hard, they remain supportive of the monarchy. But also accepting of the primary aspects of our aristocratic and ancient culture (the position of old public schools and universities, and so on) as being uniquely English and part of our historic legacy.

With this in mind, most working-class voters are perfectly comfortable with Etonian Prime Ministers and all the other posh politicians and bureaucrats they see on TV. They are not deferential to the English posh, but they are not hostile at all either. 

6. Their patriotism isn’t ethnically or racially defined or derived. A final brief note: while self-consciously very patriotic, and while committed to border control, the English working-class are proudly anti-racist and supportive of a multi-racial society. They actively welcome migrants from other countries who work hard – and particularly so if they build businesses and create jobs. 

What does all this mean for Rishi Sunak? 

Rishi Sunak’s wealth – and his family’s and in-laws’ wealth – is utterly irrelevant to working-class voters. His “poshness” (Winchester, essentially) is irrelevant too. Working-class voters won’t care in the slightest that he has a number of nice houses, or that he wears bespoke suits and expensive trainers. It won’t be possible to make the English working-class hate his success, to envy it or to denigrate it.

He is seen as a successful businessman, with a successful wife from a successful family. What’s to dislike? Even as the cost of living rises, they won’t care, because they will view his wealth as having been earned. 

What, though, of his and his wife’s tax affairs and the status of their nationality or residency? As businesspeople who have lived and worked abroad and (at least in his wife’s case) who have close family ties abroad. To the extent that people understand any of it, they will at least likely appreciate their personal affairs are going to be complicated. That doesn’t mean they’ll ignore it all, but it undoubtedly blunts the anger that some commentators seem convinced is there. 

It seems all of this will come out in Lord Geidt’s investigation, but Sunak’s taxes would have to look catastrophically bad for this to make people genuinely angry with him, as opposed to making them shake their heads and say “they’re all the same”. In all of this, the only thing that matters is whether it looks like he created rules – or effectively used insider / expert knowledge derived from his political position – to enrich his family.

It’s only at this point that the houses, clothes, trainers and all the rest would make much difference. But, again, despite the innuendo, there’s no evidence for this and, again, it seems extremely unlikely. 

As ever, commentators are focusing far too much on process, not issues. Rishi Sunak is extremely vulnerable amongst working-class Conservatives because their taxes are going up as costs rise and because he hasn’t sufficiently squeezed unnecessary spending and tackled waste. He is also vulnerable because he doesn’t have enough to say about their towns and the levelling-up agenda.

While he is therefore vulnerable to the allegation that he doesn’t understand working-class struggles, he is no more vulnerable than any other professional politician. In short, the danger to Rishi Sunak comes from working-class people’s taxes rather than his own.