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
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