Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s pensioner problem

Age now trumps class at the ballot box

People of a certain generation may well remember The Simpsons episode when, following a bout of intergenerational warfare between the children of Springfield and their parents, a referendum is held on a curfew for young people.

On election day, Homer sits on the sofa as he cannot be bothered to vote. When the result comes through, the curfew has been extended, not just to children, but to all people under the age of 70. Pensioners, seeking peace and quiet from the fighting between younger generations, had turned out in mass numbers, exerting their will on the town’s population.

With Labour’s pensioner problem reaching critical levels, the party would do well to heed the moral of the story.

Labour ran a definitively youth-focused campaign: it pledged to reform private rented housing, reduce tuition fees, give a job to every young person and abolish zero-hours contracts. The idea was to engage young people (who overwhelming backed Labour) in the political process and hoover up votes among their target demographics of students, young couples and families.

The Conservatives relentlessly targeted those who turn out in the highest numbers: older voters. They offered new pension freedoms, ‘granny bonds’, pledges of inheritance tax cuts and celebrated the triple-lock guarantee on pension increases (even when wages were stagnating).

The dramatic impact of this approach was evident in the sharp intake of breath heard as the exit poll flashed across televisions at 10pm on polling night. Post-election analysis by ComRes suggests that, although Labour led by eight points among 18-24-year-olds, it was 21 points behind among those aged over 65. Winning just 25 per cent of the vote among this latter group, Labour was closer to coming third than first (the United Kingdom Independence party had 18 per cent, compared to the Conservatives’ 46 per cent). Differences in voting were greater by age than they were by social grade, marking a break with the past. For the first time age, and no longer class, is the  most important demographic indicator of party support.

Why this is so important is that older people are the most likely to vote – as is well known. Labour should perhaps learn the same lessons as pollsters have had to, though, with young and less affluent people overstating their likelihood to vote being a major reason why Labour’s support was in turn overstated. Precise data on who actually turns out otherwise does not exist: the exit poll collects simply a vote tally, while the electoral roll does not contain age details.

So the first thing Labour needs to do about the crucial grey vote is to find a better way of identifying what its target audience actually looks like: not just who may support the party, but whether they are likely to vote in the first place. This pool may end up being older and more affluent than many think.

Second, as it has not won the over-65 segment of the electorate since 1997, the party should be conducting a thorough investigation into its brand problem among older voters. Research looking into older people’s views of the party, similar to Southern Discomfort, which examined the opinions of middle England in the 1990s, would go a long way in helping this.

Finally, once it understands how it can appeal to older voters, the party will need to focus relentlessly on attracting them. Unless Labour can do so, with a rapidly ageing electorate, it faces remaining out of power for the foreseeable future.


Adam Ludlow is a senior consultant at ComRes


Photo: Bromford Group

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Adam Ludlow

is a senior consultant at ComRes


  • The shadow minister for older people – Liz Kendall – surely bears some of the responsibility for this problem.

  • So when the pre-election Conservative “plan” to put a ceiling on care costs paid for by the elderly suddenly disappeared Labour was articulating what a great injustice this was? No, they were more interested in the ability of 70 year old Nobel Prize winners to tell jokes.

  • Its easy to win with older people . Keep criticising the Tories for spending too little on defence Because they spend less than we do . Offer pensioners bribes like the Tories do . We can always go back on our word like the Tories . Propaganda and Bull is needed . Get dirty like the Tories nationally . At least its for the right reasons . Lie to the Sun etc to get their support .
    Once elected we can then do what is right ,but otherwise we can do nothing . Oh and I support Jeremy Corben or andy Burnham with a right wing Labour deputy and loads of bull .Whoever wins lets unite behind our leader . The alternative is the Tories .

  • It is also very strange that the oldies ignored the needs of their children and grandchildren. Are they (I voted Labour) just getting too well treated by the Tories that their sense of entitlement equals that of SamCam (as told be Catherine Bennett in the Guardian)? Whatever is the reason it is a known fact that people become more right wing as they get older so Labour have a lot to do (especially with the leadership line-up).

  • I am of the Grey Vote and have been ignored by Progress editor for many years. Perhaps my ideas are too
    “radical”. Yet it is said of me that I am ahead of the game and many
    of my predictions and ideas have come to pass, although I may not have had the
    credit, personally.
    So, what has the author able to tell me that is new? NOT A THING!!! At Progress conference last year, I said policies should be
    aimed at the Grey vote, since they are the ones who vote! But I was poo pooed.
    Perhaps the penny has finally dropped – it was the Grey vote that is utterly disillusioned with Labour and sunk
    it at the elections.

    I send articles in to Progress, particularly from a Grey Vote angle, but never even get a reply, although a member for nearly 20 years!! Yet I have been regularly
    published elsewhere, although it is difficult these days. When Ed Milliband was elected at conference 2010, I looked him in the eye and said “you must remember the Older people.” “Yes” he replied yet he surrounded himself with “children” (bag carriers and so-called advisers on their career paths). which the Grey Vote detests. Advisors ought to be experienced, older people who are well rounded and in a better position to make sound judgments. Liz Kendall was a minister for old people. She has never even worked in the Public Sector let alone the Health Service! One can have sympathy but EMPATHY needs the individual to have had similar experiences. You can only get so much out of a book or paper report. Liz Kendall is supposed to be speaking about the truth, but you will probably dismiss my “truths” out of hand!!! But then, what do I know, I’m just a thick old person who counts for little and not part of the Progress “in-crowd”!!!!

  • It’s not that Labour has a problem with mature, life-experienced people, but that we have one with Labour. It is not a brand problem,but the opposite: an inability to offer anything but a “brand”. I have really struggled to even stay in the room at Labour meetings for years now. I voted one more time out of tired loyalty to a past where I believed Labour was based on ethics I agreed with. And I quite liked Ed Miliband. But I think the current maelstrom of backbiting tory lite idiocy needs one hell of a lot more than branding, to ever appeal to me again. I’m 61, poor, part of the generation of social protest and radical activism, whose young and middle years were spent helping develop equalities through thoughtful societal change. Labour has lost my trust.

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