Can the pensioner with the grey beard win the grey vote? If, as I expect, 66-year-old Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour leadership on 12 September, this could be the crucial question at the 2020 general election, rather than his plans to tax the rich or take the rail and energy companies back into state control.
As academics and opinion pollsters pore over the results of this May’s election, a startling theme is emerging: for the first time, your age is more likely to determine how you vote than your social class.
In May, the Conservatives won 46 per cent of the votes of those 65 and over, to Labour’s 25 per cent, according to pollsters ComRes. Conversely, Labour won 40 per cent of 18-24 year-olds, to the Tories’ 32 per cent. Young people were much less likely to vote than pensioners. The British Election Study estimates a turnout of 43 per cent among 18-24 year-olds, rising up the age scale to 78 per cent among those 65 and over. The numbers are still being crunched, but this could mean that Ed Miliband’s pitch for the youth vote –his most expensive pledge was to cut university tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year -- won Labour a net gain of about 400,000 votes. Meanwhile, the Tories’ ruthless targeting of the grey vote and commitment to maintain perks for rich pensioners, was worth an estimated 2.1m extra votes. The Tories’ net gain of 1.7m in this generation game was the difference between a Tory majority and a hung parliament.
As people are living longer, things can only get worse for Labour unless it can appeal to older voters: by 2020, there will be about 1.5m more over 65s and four in 10 people will be over 50.
Labour leadership: The Contenders
Labour leadership: The Contenders
1/2 Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn started off as the rank outsider in the race to replace Ed Miliband and admitted he was only standing to ensure the left of the party was given a voice in the contest. But the Islington North MP, who first entered Parliament in 1983, is now the firm favourite to be elected Labour leader on September 12 after a surge in left-wing supporters signing up for a vote.
2/2 Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham started out as the front-runner in the leadership election, seen as the candidate of the left until Jeremy Corbyn entered the race. The former Cabinet minister has found himself squeezed between the growing populism of Corbyn’s radical agenda and the moderate, centre-left Yvette Cooper, not knowing which way to turn. It has attracted damaging labels such as ‘flip-flop Andy’, most notably over his response to the Government’s Welfare Bill. He remains hopeful he can win enough second preference votes to take him over the 50 per cent threshold ahead of Corbyn.
The stark age divide between supporters of the two biggest parties no longer applies among different social classes. According to ComRes, the Tories led Labour by 43 to 28 per cent among the top AB grade; the Tories were ahead by 36 to 32 per cent among C1s; the two parties were neck and neck on 33 per cent among C2s and Labour led by 38 to 30 per cent among the bottom DE group.
“For the first time age, and no longer class, is the most important demographic indicator of party support,” said Adam Ludlow, a senior consultant at ComRes. “As Labour 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.” He added: “Once Labour 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.”
The blurring of traditional social class lines is bad news for Labour as it prepares to elect a left-wing class warrior in Mr Corbyn. The danger for Labour is fighting the last war and leaving the country cold.
On the face of it, electing a man who would be 70 at the next election might give Labour a route to the pensioners’ vote. But Mr Corbyn shows every sign of repeating Mr Miliband’s classic mistake of targeting people who do not bother to vote. Corbyn allies speak of “growing the electorate,” which sounds like something he would do on his allotment. Mr Corbyn insists that critics who say four out of five voters Labour needs next time must come from the Tories, are looking through “the wrong end of the telescope.” He told the LabourList website a key target would be “young people who didn’t register, who didn’t vote.”
Mr Corbyn is understandably delighted that young people flock to his jam-packed rallies. There is no doubt he has enthused a new generation by giving it hope that politics can be done differently. Many have tuned in to politics for the first time, which is great. Many of the 400,000 people who have signed up to vote in Labour’s leadership contest since May are under 30 and I suspect the new recruits will give him a decisive victory –possibly with more than 50 per cent of first preference votes (making people’s second, third and fourth preferences redundant).
But however good it feels, a packed hall with 1,000 people and another 500 in the overflow room or the street, is only a tiny proportion of an electorate of 46 million. So are Labour’s 400,000 recruits. The Corbyn crusade will need to reach a lot more people –and they will have to turn out in 2020.
Perhaps the retired baby-boomers will not be the selfish generation, as they are often depicted, and will rally behind the Corbyn banner. After all, they worry about the education, jobs and housing prospects of their children and grandchildren. Maybe they will tire of austerity too.
But I wouldn’t bet on it. The cliché that people become more conservative as they get older may be accurate. Research by YouGov before the May election found that older people care more about the ideological stance of a political party than its key policies. Six out of 10 people over 60 said the main determinant of their voting intention was a party’s broad values and priorities. The election of an avowedly left-wing rather than centrist leader might make Labour’s electoral mountain even harder to climb.
One hope among Corbyn supporters is that their man will re-unite the left by appealing to Liberal Democrats and Greens. Yet research by the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society found that, for every non-voter or left-wing voter Labour attracts, there is a risk the party would lose as many to the Tories. Labour folk who thought that would not happen under the left-leaning Mr Miliband got a nasty shock in May. Again, Team Corbyn should not make the same mistake.
Mr Corbyn looks certain to defy the odds and his Labour critics by winning the party leadership. Whether he would be able to defy political gravity in 2020 is a very different matter.Reuse content