The Generation Game

With age comes wisdom. You could argue that point. What we can’t argue is that with age comes voting.

With age comes wisdom. You could argue that point. What we can’t argue is that with age comes voting. Figures show that 51.8% of those aged 18-24 and 57.3% of those aged 25-34 voted in the 2010 General Election. Contrast that with the pensioners: 74.7% of those over 65 voted in the same election. And the gap has grown. In 1992, 67% of those aged 18-24 and 77% of those aged 25-34 could be bothered to turn out, against 79% over 65 years. It is perhaps not surprising that the young feel that the political system favours the old. The young march, and the old vote. Governments win when they get votes, so they favour the old. And the old win.

You don’t have to go far for examples – pledges to scrap tuition fees were abandoned, but not the pledge to triple-lock pensions. The education budget has been cut, transport squeezed, housebuilding has struggled to gain pace, while health spending has risen in real terms. Working-age benefits have been capped, child benefit means-tested, but the winter fuel allowance remains and the pensioner bond scheme has been extended.

This division between generations is another force driving fragmentation in British politics and presents opportunities for smaller parties to carve out a distinctive appeal. The generational divide coincides with divisions over the socio-cultural and economic evolution of Britain over the last forty years. Young people are relatively comfortable with immigration and cultural change. Older voters, by contrast, support further restrictions on immigration and have opposed social liberalisation such as same-sex marriage in much greater numbers. The young are struggling to get on the housing ladder, whereas the old dominate UK household wealth. Even the kinds of economic discontent voters of different generations are facing diverge. Young people are struggling to find adequate training and well-paid jobs. Pensioners are confronting the reality of living on savings and pensions with record low interest rates. Voters on the cusp of retirement were the hardest hit by deindustrialisation in the 1980s.

It is another reason why the Conservatives and Labour seem set to miss a majority again in 2015. They have struggled to define a strategy that wins healthy support from all age groups while money is tight. More for health is less for education. More for pensions is less for housing. Euroscepticism draws in the old, and drives away the young. On the other hand, the smaller parties are working fertile land. The Greens are building their appeal with young, socially liberal, well-educated voters struggling within the British economy. At the other end, UKIP is winning older, socially conservative, less educated voters across England. The SNP has very successfully appealed to young voters feeling disempowered by an ageing, pensionable phalanx of Unionists, as well as those hit hard in the 1980s. These parties do not need a majority across the UK, and have not sought one.

This disintegration feeds on itself. To cobble together majorities, the Conservatives and Labour are increasingly relying on policies clearly designed to appeal to interest group cohorts within the electorate rather to the electorate as a whole (c.f. the pensioners’ bonds and Labour’s promise to double paternity leave). In this environment, overarching party messages and coherent narratives can get lost in a sea of smaller details and focus group findings. It shifts the emphasis of the state from providing public services that can win support from parts of all age groups to transfer payments (a cheque, or direct debit, from the Government rather than a service) that target specific demographics more precisely. It is this point which is as important as the much-heralded debate over the size of the state as a proportion of GDP. What the state does is as important as how much it does – it is a more complicated debate to have than the debate over size, but it will figure more and more if voters’ preferences continue to splinter among age groups and parties.

The question is, will the old win? They are the largest group receiving a transfer payment, the state pension, and, as we have seen, they vote. But that may be changing. In 2005, 38% of 18-24s and 48% of 25-34s turned out. So 51% and 57% in 2010 is a significant improvement. Pensioner turnout was virtually static. The young may have gotten the fire in their bellies, and will use their iPhones to bring up Google Maps, and find the nearest polling stations. Or maybe their Androids.