The future of the left since 1884

Labour for all ages

Labour must address its generational imbalance and win older voters to stand any chance of success, writes Sam Dalton.



The defining division of today’s politics increasingly appears to be that of age. The 2019 election results presented little evidence of the generational chasm between young and old closing. According to Ipsos Mori, 62 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted Labour, compared to just 17 per cent of over-65s. The figures are mirrored for the Conservatives: only 19 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted for them, in contrast to 64 per cent of over-65s. The pattern of generational division made clear since the 2016 EU referendum rolls on.

Having the support of young people might hold future promise for Labour, but currently our age demographics mean it is simply not possible to perform well electorally with such dreary support amongst older people. Even if we achieved youth engagement in politics to the extent that every young person went out to vote, they would be outvoted by older people. And we know full well that this parity of participation is far from a reality: 2019 turnout was 74 per cent for over-65s, and 47 per cent for 18 to 24-year-olds.

Addressing Labour’s generational imbalance is intertwined with tackling the rural-urban divide. Our towns are ageing much faster than our cities: the Centre for Towns showed that between 1981 and 2011, 80 per cent of the growth in 25 to 44-year-olds occurred in large towns and cities, while three quarters of the increase in 45 to 64-year-olds and over-65s took place in villages and small and medium towns – with older people being much more efficiently spread across parliamentary constituencies.

Labour has become a party for young people in cities. Today’s demographic landscape means that is a recipe for disaster.

A policy offer for all ages

The key question is what policy direction Labour should travel down to win back older voters. Because the majority now live in towns, prioritising the revival of smaller communities that have not enjoyed as many social and economic opportunities as cities is key. David Swift pointed out in his recent Fabian article that towns face particular disadvantages such as more high street shops closing, longer travelling distances to access healthcare and, perhaps most importantly, a lack of hope.

Lisa Nandy has long been calling for a greater focus on towns, putting this at the heart of her leadership bid. She has advocated for policies such as town-focused devolution, better transport networks including bus routes, and an industrial strategy that more evenly spreads opportunities across the country. Prioritising towns does not necessarily mean a clean break with the Labour of Jeremy Corbyn. The Preston model, through which councils work together with local institutions like the NHS, police and colleges to invest money locally, can bring more economic power to towns. And Labour’s Green New Deal can be given a town-focused orientation to bring green jobs specifically to these areas.

While these economic policies will bring a greater sense of control and opportunity to the older generations living in towns, Labour must give at least as much attention to the cultural sphere. Because when the different political views of young and old are examined, it is the libertarian-authoritarian axis that emerges as the deepest source of division.

Research done on behalf of the parliamentary group on social integration for its intergenerational connection inquiry showed that younger people are more likely to hold socially liberal values and regard multiculturalism, feminism, sexuality equality and the green movement as positive forces. Immigration and tackling crime tend to be bigger concerns for older people.

The importance of social and cultural issues over economic ones  is supported by the fact that older people were more in favour of raising taxes to fund public services than young people when asked by Populus in 2018 Based on election results, you’d expect the opposite.

So, if Labour really is to get to grips with its generational imbalance, it will need to have a cultural offer for older people. The challenge is how to achieve this while not compromising the core values of the party and the predominantly young membership now driving it.

Some things have to be off the table. Tacking a backwards step on sexual freedom or the Green New Deal would be completely unacceptable. But would talking up the importance of safe streets and tackling crime, enhancing people’s sense of personal security? On this, Labour could point to the proper funding it would give to policing and prison services compared to the austerity of the last decade. Similarly, on emphasising the importance of national security, Labour could commit to our ties with NATO, say yes to the renewal of Trident alongside a push for multilateral disarmament, and take a stronger stand when threats like the Skripal poisoning occur. What about celebrating Britishness and patriotism? Simple things like removing aversion to the Union Jack and Royal Family would be a good start as Labour builds a progressive and inclusive vision of national identity.

The specifics of Labour’s social and cultural offer must be debated. But it is no longer enough to focus solely on class and economics as the path to success.

Tackling age segregation

As well as responding to the current divide between older towns and younger cities, bringing power and opportunity to rural areas will help Labour reduce this divide in the first place. The current need for young people to move to cities in search of work would be lessened, closing age segregation and promoting more intergenerational mixing. Labour would not to the same extent have to think separately about how to appeal to very different generations in very different places, and would have a better chance of establishing a politics of the common good.

But before the long-term trends of age segregation can be reversed, Labour needs to give itself a chance at the next election. Today’s demographic reality means it can only do that if it wins back older voters, something requiring both economic and cultural appeal.

Photo credit: Rod Long on Unsplash

Sam Dalton

Sam Dalton works on housing and social care policy. He is a Labour party activist in Southwark


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