The dominant narrative offered by a befuddled commentariat for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour achieving the biggest swing towards their party in a general election since 1945 is that the young people did it. Through the #Grime4Corbyn campaign and the sight of chanting fans from Glasgow to Croydon, a reconfigured youth culture around Corbyn meant that the electorate's newest members changed the outcome for everyone, or so the story goes.
It’s true that, while in the 2010 general election, 18-to-24 year-olds voted for Labour by 15 more percentage points than for the Tories, this time round the same group went for Corbyn over the Tories by 51 points more than the national average, according to data from Ipsos Mori and Lord Ashcroft. Of course, that’s a staggering margin.
Corbyn supporters were constantly derided as ignorant and shameful throughout the past two years – “thick as pigsh*t”, said the FT’s political columnist Janan Ganesh in a now-deleted tweet, while MPs who nominated Corbyn for the leadership should “have their heads felt”, according to former Labour adviser John McTernan. However, this was a difficult narrative to push, as the likes of Stephen Hawkings, Noam Chomsky and much of the academic world explicitly endorsed Corbyn’s project.
The idea that Corbyn supporters were mostly wide-eyed, credulous students was much easier, given the sheer number of young Corbynistas: journalists could throw a stone in nearly any major city or university town and hit a young person sympathetic to the idea of affordable rents or an education that doesn’t cost £27,000.
Attributing the electoral success of Labour exclusively to the youngest group of voters allows the leading pundits to fit their shock about its impressive performance into the pre-existing lens through which they have always viewed Corbyn: that of a utopian, unrealistic purveyor of politics who offers attractive-sounding proposals, but which any reasonable citizen with experience of how the world works would reject. And if they don’t reject it, their political voice must be policed – one commentator in the Times even argued that the “naïve” views of the young demonstrated in this election are a good argument for raising the voting age to 21.
Anointed experts across the major newspapers and television programmes spent two years painting what would be by the standards of the 20th century a fairly mainstream social democratic platform, as impossible. And the intellectual gymnastics of the commentariat since election night has been a sight to behold, given electoral oblivion was so regularly pronounced over and over for a politics that failed to yield to the logic of capitalist realism – that There Is No Alternative to a society where all value derives from the principle of commerce and the market.
Instead, Corbyn’s Labour did not die miserably, but competed fiercely. While many have claimed to hold their hands up in contrition, few pundits have radically reassessed their fundamental assumptions about the viability of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics, let alone considered taking up less vocal space in light of the result. And pointing to the power of young people at the ballot box has been a convenient manoeuvre to help them maintain their premises about their field of expertise.
If Labour’s gains are all down to the youth vote, then Labour’s seat total of 266 would be the ceiling above which it would fail to reach, without greater support of older voters, which itself would, the story goes, require some watering down of its boldness. The Corbyn project would have reached its zenith, and failed to gain a Commons majority. It would have been the province of quixotic youths who are engaging with politics for the first time, drawn to the flashing lights of “no student debt” and “bans on zero-hours contracts” without the forethought that low corporate taxation, high student debt and precarious work are the permanent furniture in British society.
However, the electoral data coming out of last Thursday don’t support such a simple analysis. While the age groups of 55 to 64 year-olds and the 65-plus both saw a swing to the Conservatives of roughly 11 and 15 percentage points respectively, the 25 to 34 year-olds and 35 to 44 year-olds both saw major swings to Labour over the Conservatives compared to recent previous elections.
Labour enjoyed approximately a 13-point lead in both of these groups in 2015; that figure goes to an astounding 38 points and 22 points lead in the respective groups. The vote split fairly evenly in the 45-54 age bracket too, with 40 and 39 per cent in favour of the Tories.
This shows that British citizens who have been voting for 25 years swung significantly away from the path Britain was on, one where, in most major cities, affordable home ownership was as lofty a dream as wage growth. Britons in their mid-twenties and thirties opted for Labour in numbers not seen for decades, as soon as the party adopted a platform that said no to the core tenets of the Thatcherite vision for Britain: of deregulated labour markets, a deregulated City, privatised and emaciated public services, and severely weakened tax redistribution.
Painting Corbynistas as mostly young never washed with people with actual experience of grassroots activism in the past few years – visit any local Momentum branch and you’ll find that their typical member, far from being an brick-throwing Antifa teen, is probably a middle-aged or older person, often a single parent, often a woman.
Rather obviously, there remains huge potential in Labour to make greater inroads with these older age groups, given they continue to perform relatively badly with them, and are still short of a parliamentary majority. But do not let pundits tell you that the movement is just the domain of the young. Even if this were the case, it would not justify the derision it has received, but such an accusation is one of many techniques used to police the boundaries of acceptable political thought.Reuse content