The defeat of youth: the generational dimensions of the 2019 general election

Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty

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Discussion of the 2019 general election has been dominated by a geographical story: the loss of the so-called “Red Wall” of traditional Labour seats in the Midlands and Northern England. In fact, as many have pointed out, 2019 represents something of a return to the long-term trend of defection from Labour in such areas. In this context, it is Labour’s remarkable performance in the 2017 general election that requires explanation, despite vigorous attempts from the right and centre to eliminate this subject from discussion. The increase in Labour’s vote share in 2017, the largest since 1945, not only confounded the post-1997 decline in Labour’s fortunes but also bucked the post-2008 trend of near collapse among comparable parties in Western Europe. The responsibility for this surge lies predominantly with the young.[1] Neither the 2017 nor the 2019 election can be understood without reference to the political generation gap, which is common to the last two elections but does not predate them.

While in 2010 Labour had just a one per cent lead over the Conservatives among 18-24-year-olds, by 2017 this had risen to thirty five per cent. In that election, for every ten years older a voter was, they were nine per cent less likely to vote Labour. Among the over 65s the Conservatives led by thirty six per cent. The age divide in the 2019 election followed a broadly similar pattern, with a Labour lead of forty three per cent among the youngest cohort and a Tory lead of forty seven per cent among the oldest. Although Labour lost some votes among all cohorts, the biggest change on 2017 was among 35- to 54-year-olds, where Labour’s vote fell by eleven points and the Conservatives’ rose by three.[2] The scale of the political generation gap that emerged in 2017 and largely persisted through the 2019 election is historically unprecedented. Indeed, it is so significant that it can explain, to a large degree, the geographical divide in voting. The last twenty years has seen a steady increase in the old age dependency ratio – which measures the proportion of over 65s in comparison to the working age population – in the villages and small towns where Labour struggled. As the young leave to pursue job opportunities in the larger towns and cities, a self-reinforcing dynamic of age segregation emerges and smaller towns become less and less attractive to the young. The conclusion is obvious: the key to understanding the 2019 election lies, beyond all other things, in the political gulf between the generations.

The political generation gap is all the more intriguing given its sudden emergence across many different countries at roughly the same time. In the first months of 2020 alone, the youth vote has driven Sinn Fein’s shock win in the Irish general election while the age divide has dominated the US Democratic Party presidential primaries. This phenomenon can only plausibly be explained with reference to an event that caused rapid change on an international scale: the financial crisis of 2007–08. Since 2008, the political views of the young and old have diverged because their material interests have diverged. This situation has been long in the making but the 2008 crisis and its aftermath have accelerated and entrenched the process of generational political divergence. The core of current right-wing electoral coalitions is propertied pensioners and home-owners at or near the end of their working lives.[3] The material interests of this cohort are tied to the value of residential real estate and, because their pensions are invested in stock markets, the performance of the financial sector. The material interests of the propertyless young are opposed to those of this older cohort. Their incomes are reliant on wages and social spending while their wellbeing is determined by the cost of living, of which the housing costs are the most significant element.

These divergent material interests have led each generation to develop very different impressions of the state of the world, how the economy is doing, and so what the future might hold. The huge disconnect between the indices of the financial sector and indicators linked to the “real economy” suggests we are living in a fantasy economy. Stock prices have been at levels that would normally indicate a booming underlying economy, but measures such as GDP, business investment and wage growth show an economy characterised by stagnation. Policy response to the financial crisis, such as quantitative easing, have pushed oceans of free money into the financial sector, which has flowed from there into stocks, bonds and property. On the other hand, the 2010s were the “weakest decade for wage growth since the Napoleonic wars”.[4] When the attention of young and old are fixed on very different sectors of the economy, it is little wonder there is so much mutual incomprehension between the generations. But whilst we can understand how divergent perceptions arise, we should not treat them as equally valid.

It seems highly likely that the next five years will prove that the economic picture embraced by the affluent elderly is illusory, as the “real economy” reasserts itself through a renewed crisis. With interest rates already at unprecedented lows and central bank balance sheets larger than ever, many states will lack the monetary firepower to respond to this crisis. The erroneous nature of the current Boomer world-view will be revealed even more powerfully by the inevitable intensification of the climate crisis. While some on the ethno-nationalist right, such as Trump and Bolsonaro, are overt climate change deniers, the views of the wider right rest upon implicitly denialist foundations. In fact, Boomer affluence is intimately tied up with the denial of climate science. Current valuations of fossil fuel companies, and so the levels of contemporary stock markets and pensions, assume that all accessible hydrocarbon fuel reserves will be burned.[5] Doing so would end human civilization. The scale and pace of emissions reductions now required to limit the climate catastrophe are so significant that it is hard to imagine any version of the future in which Labour’s defeat in the 2019 election is not seen as a can-kicking disaster.

On the other hand, the crisis that has pushed the young leftwards is not going away. It seems likely that, whilst the foundations of the world views of most young people will be confirmed by the events of the next ten years, the same will not true of the views that currently predominate among the elderly. Many of these positions will become increasingly unsustainable as the decade moves on. In the long run, you can’t gaslight physics. The challenge for the left is to predict the events that might confound current right-wing dogma and develop strategies to interrupt the ideological reproduction of the right. Grasping how material interests are articulated politically will be a key component of breaking a section of older voters away from Conservatism.

Any conception of material interests is inherently linked to one’s sense of social and political possibility. Individuals have multiple competing interests; they act on those that seem linked to a viable and attractive future. Since 2008 there has been a generational divergence not just of immediate material interests but also around what seems socially and politically possible. A reversion to the pre-2008 status quo and the aspirational life course attached to it may still seem viable to those whose interests have been protected by bank bailouts and quantitative easing, but for the young that line of history is over. Millennials (those aged roughly 20- to 40-years-old) are predicted to be the first generation for hundreds of years to have lower lifetime earnings than the previous two generations.[6] The collapse of belief in what we might call neoliberal aspiration among the young – namely the idea that playing by the rules will lead to ever greater levels of consumption – has created room for leftwing visions of the future to flourish.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto contained an offer to older voters to reframe their material interests in line with those of their younger relatives. The policy of free care for the over-65s and a £100,000 cap on personal contributions to other lifetime care costs, for instance, undermines the idea that equity withdrawal from expensive homes is the only way to guarantee the care the elderly need in old age. Policies to break with the regime of asset-based welfare – in which the middle classes are encouraged to acquire assets to insure themselves against risk, allowing neoliberal governments to cut social security – should remain a central plank of Labour’s policy agenda. But while Labour tried to reshape material interests it did not succeed in reshaping what seemed politically possible among the cohorts it needed to win over.

One of the greatest strengths of Corbynism was its ability to draw innovative policy from the new ecosystem of academics and think-tanks that Corbyn’s leadership helped create. Policy can extend the boundaries of what seems possible, and Corbynite policy certainly appeared to do so, among the young at least. The day-to-day functioning of parliamentary politics, however, involves constant compromise with the status quo, constraining the left’s sense of possibility. It is difficult for politics exercised solely in this sphere to escape the conservative framing of a media rendered tendentiously right-wing through oligarchic ownership. Moreover, the only parliamentary option available to a non-governing party is to prevent change rather than create it. Corbyn’s near victory in 2017 shortened the apparent timeframe for his immediate political project. This shift trapped Labour into an almost exclusively parliamentary focus, thwarting ambitions to turn the party into something akin to a social movement and leaving the leadership vulnerable to the exercise of leverage by the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

If parliamentary politics tends to face inwards towards the existing sense of the possible, then social movements and extra-parliamentary politics have traditionally provided avenues for the left to face the other way, and develop strategies for “inventing the future”. Over the last three hundred years, the big leaps forward in our collective sense of the politically possible have come from radical social movements, alongside working class organisation. It seems unlikely that many wealthier pensioners will be won away from the right until events place the future they envision into doubt. As attention moves away from parliamentary politics, where little can be achieved for several years, the space will open up for a renewed movementist turn on the left through a strategy of what is being called “deep organizing”.[7] This strategy will involve serious efforts both to extend union organising in the workplace and to build new organisations in wider society, such as the rapidly expanding social union ACORN. The first task of such a strategy will be to solidify the grip of left ideas over the young following Generation Left’s first big defeat.[8] The second task will be to extend these projects to the more deprived parts of the “Red Wall” regions. Overcoming the problem of geographical age segregation will not be easy and it may initially involve projects on a fairly small-scale, but it is hard to see any other route to bridging the generation gap that is currently dominating politics.

Keir Milburn is a lecturer in political economy and organisation at the University of Leicester, and author of  Generation Left (Cambridge, 2019).

This essay is part of a series of extracts from Futures of Socialism: Into the Post-Corbyn Era, edited by Grace Blakeley. Read all the essays, as they are published through March, here.

[1] The idea of increased youth turnout in 2017, the so-called Youthquake, has caused some controversy. While the British Election Study cast doubt on the phenomenon, a later study from the University of Essex provided evidence it had actually taken place. Either way, nobody disputes that increased vote share among the young drove Labour’s good performance.

[2] Jeremy Gilbert has suggested that the older end of this cohort was particularly susceptible to media attacks on Corbyn and, in particular, the use of the proposal for a second Brexit referendum as a wedge issue to split Labour’s 2017 electoral coalition: Gilbert, “It was the centrist dads who lost it”, Open Democracy, 13 January 2020.

[3] Around 75 per cent of UK pensioners own their own homes. Pensioners who rent are no more likely to vote Conservative than younger voters.

[4] Laura Gardiner, “Unemployment hits 41-year low but Britain’s short-lived pay recovery is rapidly coming to an end”, Resolution Foundation, 15 March 2017.

[5] “‘Carbon bubble’ could spark global financial crisis, study warns”, Guardian, 4 June 2018.

[6] Laura Gardiner, “Stagnation Generation”, Resolution Foundation, 18 June 2016.

[7] On the difference between shallow mobilisation and deep organizing, see Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts, Oxford, 2016.

[8] Generation Left names not just the current tendency of the young to move left but also the political project to develop and assert a new left politics adequate to its experiences.

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Edited by Grace Blakeley
192 pages / October 13, 2020 / 9781839761331