Sunday, August 25, 2013

In Politics Demographics Are Destiny

The image above comes from the ONS Census Animation of the last 100 years. (Click to enlarge the image and see detail).

See that huge bulge from age 40 to 50? That's my generation. We were teenagers in the 1980's (which shaped our politics). We started voting in the 1990's, and by 1997, as late twenty-somethings and early thirty-somethings, we were a big enough cohort to put Labour into power with a massive majority. Even now, this group is firmly on Labour's side according to opinion polls. This is important because not all generations are equal. The pollsters present the age related data in a way that makes you think that all the cohorts have equal numbers. This is not the case as you can see from the image.

Demographics have always played a bigger part in British politics than the commentariat likes to acknowledge. A big factor in Thatcher's election in 1979 was the passing of the generation that had voted for Attlee. As the 1980's went on, more of them died and the Thatcher majorities increased. In the 1990's this started to reverse - the generations that had put Macmillan into power started to pass on, and my generation started to vote for the first time.

What is reassuring from the polls is that Labour supporters (and Labour tactical voters, who may be recorded in elections under another banner but who identify with Labour) think that the 2008 crisis was global and nothing to do with Labour. They continue to have fond memories of Labour's 13 years in power when many prospered, and are hoping for a re-run, hence their solid support for the party in the polls.

Labour leads for all the cohorts under 59.

You often get newspaper commentators wondering what happened to the people who voted for John Major. Two million Conservative voters have gone missing, they lament. It's simple - they died, and the Tories didn't think to replace them with a younger generation.

People's personalities and their politics seem to get fixed by about the age of 24 (you need to get 'em young). After that, it takes a real disaster to shake people away from their broad party allegiances.

And the 18-24 year olds who were tempted to vote LibDem in 2010 are young enough to be open to persuasion to back Labour. According to IpSOS-Mori, in the 2010 election, the 18-24 year olds voted 30% Tory, 31% Labour and 30% LibDem. Current polls are showing this group as 30% Tory, 48% Labour and 10% LibDem. So Labour has secured the next generation.

When you have demographics on your side, as Labour does now, the most important thing is to hold your nerve and not do anything to alienate people.

Thatcher in the 80's had demographics on her side - but in a fit of hubris thought that it didn't matter if she shafted the young as she believed they'd come round when they were older. She was wrong. My generation simply waited patiently till we could vote and then kicked the Tories with all our might. Keeping the Tories out is still imperative for Britain's bulge generation.

With the advent of the Iraq war and the anti-Labour fervour on university campuses, Labour very nearly made the same mistake. We were lucky that the LibDems got rid of Charlie Kennedy and replaced him with the mendacious Clegg. And all quickly enough to turn the under 24's before their views got set.

The last thing Labour needs to do is ignore it's demographic dividend and pander to the right-wing tendencies of the over 60's. The UKIP phenomenon is much talked about - but it is primarily about old people raging at their loss of dominance over British politics, they are raging against the night. (According to Yougov, UKIP register at about 16% amongst the over 60's but only 2% under the 18-24's). The relentless cycle of birth and death means that by the next election a few more UKIPers will have gone to the great cemetary in the sky and a few more anti-UKIPers will be eligible to vote.

So what should Labour do? Not stray too far from the spirit of 1997. We've got a chance for a do-over - times are different and hence the policies will have to be too, but the desire for a humane civilized country is still as strong as ever.

It may sound surprising for a Labourite to say this, but my generation is not really left-wing in the same way as the generations that came of age in the 1940's and 1960's. Instead we are soft social democrats. We like prosperity (some of us run businesses) but we're kindly enough and civilised enough to want a safety net and are willing to pay for it. We don't want to harass disabled people for kicks like the Tories, we want to cuddle them. We don't hate foreigners, some of us have employed them and others have married them - we just see them as humans who are trying to better themselves and escape awful circumstances (life in Poland is no picnic). We want to preserve the NHS for another 60 years. We're a humane generation, in contrast to the nastier strain in older people. And our children are being raised with our values.

Matthew Parris wrote in 2007 that the Labour government had changed the country - "Mr Blair will leave a happier country than he found. Something tolerant, something amiable, something humorous, some lightness of spirit ... a changed, kinder, gentler Britain."

Kinder, gentler - these are still Labour's unique selling points - it's what all under 60's want of the country. As long as Labour keeps this in mind and doesn't move out of step with what is now a clear majority of the country, the next election is ours. Is Ed Miliband a kind and gentle man? Yes - which means that personality politics, so beloved of the press, arn't against us either.

1 comment:

DevonChap said...

The young are with us so we will be in power in the future has been the rallying cry of the left for decades and always fails. The fact is cohorts get more likely to vote right wing as they get older. I think its Mori who have general election voting by age groups going back to 1974. In October 1974 the 18-25 year old group were much more likely to vote Labour than the average - this was the 1968 generation after all. Now 40 years later they are in the over 60 group who were more likely to vote Tory than the average in 2010. Clearly they have over time moved to the right. People change over time. This is a constant. Think of the 19th century saying "If you are not a Liberal by the time you are 30 you have no heart, if you are still a Liberal by the time you are 50 you have no brain". That charts the same age old shift.