Labour’s Age Problem

Aaron Bastani

Despite Labour’s troubles, recent polling by YouGov showed the party still commands a national lead among the under-40s. Among men it’s by a single point, within the margin of error, but among younger women it rises to 15 points – astonishing given the Tories currently lead by as much as twenty points nationally. That should offer some succour to the team around Jeremy Corbyn, and is likely to confirm the experiences of his supporters in conversations with friends or canvassing for the party. But it is also, in the context of electoral success, relatively meaningless. Older voters decide who wins.

‘Millennials’ – the large cohort born between 1980 and the mid-1990s – favoured Remain over Brexit, and Scottish independence over staying in the union. They shifted towards Ed Miliband in the 2015 general election, and view only the Greens more favourably than Labour under Corbyn. (In the US, they preferred Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton, and Clinton to Donald Trump.) They are, in short, unaccustomed to winning. (Obama's victories were an exception.)

In Britain, as in America, changing demographics map on to an unfavourable electoral geography. The population of large city centres in England and Wales more than doubled between 2001 and 2011, with the number of residents aged between 20 and 29 nearly tripling – this group now accounts for half of city centre residents.

In May 2015, amid a sea of blue, England’s great cities – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds – all voted Labour. A year later, the London mayoral race saw Sadiq Khan succeed in the face of a racist campaign which at a national level would probably have prevailed. The same day, Bristol elected Marvin Rees, the son of Jamaican and British parents, as its mayor. Both events were at odds with the story that Lynton Crosby – so expert in leveraging perceived cultural difference – wants us to believe about the kind of country Britain is.

The reason for the divergence has nothing to do with a fabled ‘metropolitan elite’ and everything to do with demographics. As well as more younger people, cities have large BME communities. This makes them more likely to have progressive attitudes on migration and be less likely to vote Tory. They still have economic worries – Islington has very high levels of child poverty – but they are less likely to blame the poor for their problems.

Britain’s electoral system, however, means that this concentration of progressive thinking in urban areas is bad for Labour. Nowhere was this clearer than in another recent poll, which showed the Tories finishing first in Wales. Labour hasn’t offered the country a meaningful answer to post-industrial decline, but the main reason this historically left-wing nation is turning blue is that it is getting older, while younger voters converge in Cardiff or move to England. Labour held on in the local elections last week, but the structural shift would appear to be unfavourable for them as the years go by.

Labour is therefore doomed under the current system unless it can appeal to older voters. In an economy set up for them, from inflated house prices to relatively generous public pensions, that could prove difficult – especially given they are more likely to their news from the right-wing press. But a crisis of geriatric care is looming, with an increasingly under-funded NHS and local services struggling to cope with the needs of an older population (the number of over-65s will rise to 15 million by 2030 from 11 million today). For Labour, the pitch should be simple: the market – and its champions in the Conservative Party – will not look after you. This has the added benefit of being true.


  • 8 May 2017 at 2:05pm
    IPFreely says:
    Once upon a time, there was a very large and influential union movement that regularly gave Labour a massive foundation for success at general elections. Gone of course, crushed by Thatcher and Blair. If the people who joined the party in order to get Corbyn as leader were to go out and campaign the Labour Party might stand a chance in June. Yes, once loyalty to the cause meant something.

    • 11 May 2017 at 12:19pm
      Peterson_the man with no name says: @ IPFreely
      Even if everyone who joined to vote for Corbyn spent every day between now and Jun 8 knocking on doors, it's unlikely that it would make any significant difference to the election result. Labour's problem isn't lack of activists, lack of popular policies or even demographic change: it's that the party is all too obviously in no fit state to form a government. And that won't change until one side wins the current civil war.

      In the last couple of years, we have heard a lot (mainly from those on the right of the party who have unexpectedly found themselves displaced from what they believe to be their natural position of leadership) about the need for Labour to be an alliance of right and left. But the lesson of the last forty years is that Labour can only function as an election-winning force when one of its wings is completely beaten down and subjugated - as the left was under Blair.

      Labour's internal spats usually end either with the left giving in or the right flouncing off to start their own party. This time round, both sides seem reluctant to perform their accepted roles. It could go on for a long while yet.

  • 8 May 2017 at 3:03pm
    kadinsky says:
    Problem is, pensioners have been largely exempted by the Tories from austerity punishment. And not by accident.

    • 9 May 2017 at 8:26am
      stettiner says: @ kadinsky
      A problem indeed... As Zarah Larsson, the new pop starlet so beautifully puts it: "can old people die already?"

  • 9 May 2017 at 10:35am
    nztab says:
    This is the only blog where anybody talks any sense anymore

  • 9 May 2017 at 6:04pm
    Stu Bry says:
    "Labour hasn’t offered the country a meaningful answer to post-industrial decline, but the main reason this historically left-wing nation is turning blue is that it is getting older, while younger voters converge in Cardiff or move to England."

    It's also worth noting that the reverse is true. Scotland and Wales are home to more and more English born people, 9% and 21% respectively.

    In Scotland it seems like we are exporting graduates and importing retirees. The Tory resurgence has to be viewed in this context.

  • 17 May 2017 at 1:40am
    rmurphet says:
    It is constantly depressing for this 72 year old resolute left-winger that articles such as this on the relationship of demographics to politics should, based on research and figures no doubt, report/accept that citizens are voting conservative simply because they have grown older. 'Imported retirees' seems to indicate by default fearful right-wing cohorts. I cannot understand why advancing age should should lead to selfishness and a love of a market-driven society. 'Those hippies out to make it rich / Must be the season of the Witch.'

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