The anatomy of Labour's "youthquake"

Submitted by AWL on 18 March, 2020 - 9:15 Author: Matt Cooper

In the 2017 British general election, Labour succeeded in closing a 20% deficit in the course of the campaign. Labour ended up with only 2% less than the Conservatives, and denied them a majority.

There were many reasons for that turnaround. One was a “youthquake” — an increase in turnout among younger voters who overwhelmingly voted Labour. The effect was so notable that the Oxford English Dictionary made “youthquake” their neologism of the year.

In the 2017 election around 62% of 18-24 year olds voted Labour. Only 27% voted Conservative. (Unless otherwise stated, data on age and voting is taken from Ipsos MORI polling data.)

Meanwhile, only 25% of over-65s voted Labour, while 61% voted Conservative. Among the youngest age group Labour had a lead of 35 percentage points, among the oldest the Conservatives had a lead of 36 points. In the 2019 election this difference was even greater, with a Labour lead of 43 points among the youngest voters, and a 47 point Tory a lead among the over-65s.

This split is not business as usual. Young people have always been more likely to vote Labour than older people in British general elections (this pattern goes back to at least 1974, probably further). In Conservative landslides more young people voted Tory than Labour but by a smaller margin than older voters. To see the pattern of this I have condensed voting figures by age into a single measure, the “age gradient”.

The higher this figure, the greater the tendency for young people to vote Labour and older people to vote Conservative in that election. The figure is the increase in the percentage Labour/decrease in the Conservative vote for each ten years change in a voters’ age, with a positive figure showing more young people voting Labour. This is a fairly rough and ready metric designed to easily see how voting patterns have changed over time.

The age gradients for general elections since October 1974 are:
1992 - 3.5
1997 - 3.4
2001- 3.0
2005 -3.2
2010 - 2.7
2015 - 7.8
2017- 13.8
2019 - 17.5

From 1974 to 2010 there was an average age gradient of +3. There was, on average, 15 points more support for Labour over the Conservatives among 18-24 year-old voters than among over 65s. Between 1974 and 2010 young people voted on average 39% Labour and 32% Conservative; older people voted 43% Tory, 35% Labour.

2015 saw a departure from this general pattern. The change went much further in 2017 and 2019.

There was a large increase in young people voting Labour in 2017, and even more so in 2019, but also increases in Conservative support from older voters.

This appears not to be just the reflection of some other demographic trait. For example, young people are more educated than older people, but young people’s voting in 2017 and 2019 was not simply the product of young students and graduates voting Labour. Among young people, those of all educational backgrounds tended to vote Labour (although the least educated young men far less so).

Nor was it just a matter of younger people being worse-off and more concentrated in “worse” jobs. The pollsters all use the rather blunt tool of the ABC1/C2DE classification. But that crude measure shows young people from manual occupational backgrounds D and E only slightly more likely to vote Labour than those from professional backgrounds (and some polls show no differences at all).

Although the more educated, women and those from a BAME background were most likely to vote Labour, Labour voting was generally high among all young people, with the partial exception of young men with no or few educational qualifications.

There is a lack of hard evidence on why. As far as I am aware there have been no large scale studies of the political views of young people in the UK since studies around the 2001 and 2010 elections, well before the emergence of current trends.

There are two short books on the issue. Keir Milburn’s Left Generation (2019) contains no meaningful empirical data on young people and their motivations. Milburn dumps truck loads of questionable theory onto the subject until the reality is no longer visible.

His conclusions are plausible enough, suggesting the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing austerity have led young people to reject the pre-crisis dominance of neo-liberalism and that activism around Occupy and similar movements has rippled out into more general political culture among young people. He offers no evidence that what is plausible is also true.

A more useful and empirical analysis can be found in James Sloam and Matt Henn’s Youthquake 2017: The Rise of Young Cosmopolitans in Britain (2019). It suggests the development of a culture of “left-cosmopolitanism” among younger Britons, a somewhat vaguely defined set of attitudes including both economically left-wing views (greater state spending on health, homelessness and wealth redistribution) and an anti-nationalist cosmopolitan outlook (pro-EU, accepting of immigration, welcoming of cultural diversity).

Poll data from both 2017 and 2019 tends to confirm this view that younger voters are distinguished by a culture of cosmopolitanism against older voters’ socially conservative nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. A similar, although weaker, trend can be seen in older voters who appear to be becoming more economically right-wing. With straightforward links between economic position and voting becoming weaker, it appears that the cultural differences of cosmopolitanism against nationalism are more important.

The poll data on the issues that voters feel are important is patchy, but some policy issues stand out as having strong age-related levels of support. The age gradients here are not strictly comparable with those for voting above, and will necessarily appear less strong.

In the 2019 election the strongest differentiators in two polls (by Lord Ashcroft and YouGov) were:

For young voters:
• Climate change (+5.10 YouGov, +3.8 Ashcroft)
• Cost of living (+3.4 Ashcroft)
• Inequality/homelessness (+2.2 Ashcroft)

For older voters:
• “Getting Brexit done” (-6.4 Ashcroft, -4.08 YouGov)
• Immigration/asylum/ travellers (-4.29 YouGov, -2.8 Ashcroft)
• Strong leadership (-2.6 Ashcroft)
• Law and order (-2.85 YouGov, -2.4 Ashcroft)
• Defence and security (-2.04 YouGov)

Another way of looking at this comes from ideas recently developed by John Curtice and Ian Simpson in British Social Attitudes.

Their analysis of the 2017 election in BSA 35 (2018) suggests that the surge in young people voting Labour was associated with a move of 2016 Remain voters to Labour. Prior to 2015 whether someone was socially liberal or socially conservative had some impact on their voting, but that impact has become much more marked since the Brexit referendum and Labour’s shift left (and the Conservatives’ shift to a more right-populist position).

This has led to a move of socially liberal voters away from the Tories and many younger first-time voters (who are strongly social liberal) to Labour. While left-right patterns still underpin voting for Labour and the Tories, the move of all types of social liberals towards Labour has increased its youth vote. A lack of clear data means that we do not know if some young socially liberal youth who are also “right-wing” in the sense of anti-egalitarian have been drawn to Labour.

It is probably wrong for Sloam and Henn to call these voters “left-cosmopolitans”, and a close reading of their analysis suggests that they are lumping all cosmopolitans together, whether they are left-wing or not. It also suggests that Milburn’s view that a large part of this young cohort constitutes a unitary age-class is wrong. As this cohort ages and economic issues assert themselves, it is likely to split along class lines.

But currently, it appears that the surge in the Labour vote was strongly influenced by the increasing cultural cleavage in British society fuelled by Brexit.

There is a lack of evidence to show that young people were attracted towards Labour’s left-wing programme, though, equally, no evidence that they were not.

It is clear that some young people were enthusiasts for Corbyn’s Labour, it is unclear the extent to which this was the case in younger voters as a whole. The most important issue (by some distance) to young voters was climate change. More traditional left-right issues featured less prominently.

The large-scale rallying of young people to a Labour Party which they must have seen as left-wing (even if many, perhaps, do not consider themselves all that left-wing) is something to build on. The lack even of a serious attempt to build a real Labour youth movement has to be counted as one of the main failures of the Corbyn years.

But the evidence suggests this is not a generation of oven-ready socialists. Notably, trade union density among employed 16-24 year olds is below 5%, while it is above 35% for workers over the age of 35.

The future of these cohorts of younger voters remains to be determined by the way that the left and labour movement relate to them.

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