Does age now trump class in British politics?

After higher youth turnout in the 2017 general election Labour has to think hard about whether fairness is about class or cohort

Kate Alexander ShawLabour’s surprise success in June’s election, gaining 32 seats and winning 40 per cent of the popular vote, has quickly been absorbed within a new narrative about the rise of youth. Before the election, the conventional wisdom was that there was little point in courting young adults who could not be relied on to actually vote. After the poll, a wrongfooted media swiftly pivoted to proclaim a victory for young voters, and a vindication for Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy of targeting them. Early rumours of youth turnout above 70 per cent proved apocryphal, but the dominant story stuck: it was youth that had (nearly) carried the day.

Exaggerated as it may have been, it is clear that there was a step-change in youth turnout at this general election. Pollsters Ipsos Mori estimate that turnout among under-25s was 54 per cent, up from just 38 per cent in 2015. Young people remained less likely to vote than older generations (turnout among the over-65s was 71 per cent) but the size of the change was striking, and enough to make a real difference in an electoral system where small majorities can be overwhelmed by turnout changes.

There is also no doubt that Labour were the beneficiaries of the increased youth turnout. Support for the two parties is increasingly polarised by age: six out of ten under-25 year olds voted for Labour, while the same proportion of over 65s backed the Conservatives. This polarisation is so strong that age is now a far stronger predictor of voting intention than social class, which no longer maps neatly onto the two main parties. Indeed, the 2017 election showed some voting patterns running counter to traditional class politics. To the extent that the Conservatives made any gains outside Scotland, they did so by attracting Ukip voters, boosting their success in the C2DE social groups that might have been expected to be Labour supporters in the past. Labour, meanwhile, made record gains among degree-educated and ABC1 voters.

However, while it’s tempting to conclude that Corbyn’s party are now driven by the interests of middle-class students, it’s not as simple as that. Within the under-25s age group, Labour’s strongest support is from DE voters, who are 70 per cent for Labour versus 52 per cent of young ABs. It seems that Corbyn’s party have lost many older working class voters to the Conservatives via Ukip, but they are continuing to attract their children.

So what does this new coalition mean for politics? Does the rise of youth spring from Labour’s move towards more recognisably leftwing policies, or will it cut across it? Some have suggested that Corbynism is now “populism for the middle classes”, not so much a hard-left insurgency as a new accommodation with the middle-class voters that Tony Blair used to prioritise, or at least with their children. If age now trumps class, does that make Labour once more a party driven by the preferences of middle-class swing voters?

To some extent the answer to that question depends on the narrative of the election that now gains ground. It has become commonplace in some quarters to suggest that Corbyn’s gains result from a ‘bribe’ for students, attracted by the promise of an £11bn measure to abolish tuition fees. This is, to put it mildly, a selectively-applied criticism, not often levelled at policies benefiting pensioners. But more importantly, this language drives the politics down a blind alley, assuming that what is good for the young is bad for everyone else, and probably unaffordable anyway. To the extent that intergenerational fairness is framed as a straightforward contest of young against old, it still sounds a lot like the politics of austerity, asking only how to ration out scarce resources between competing groups of the more-or-less deserving. This is hardly an auspicious place to start a conversation about the renewal of the welfare state as the embodiment of a social compact between generations. If Labour is to turn its youth mandate to progressive ends, its first challenge is to move the debate away from zero-sum rhetoric, and instead champion the positive, solidaristic politics that Corbyn claims to represent, including solidarity across generations.

The second challenge, however, will be to confront the policy implications of holding together an electoral coalition of young people from very different socio-economic backgrounds. The tuition fees policy is not necessarily regressive – it depends on who goes to university in a post-fees world, and on the progressiveness of the taxation that funds universities in the future. But there are tough questions still to be answered, which would be obscured by a new focus on age rather than class. Appeals to intergenerational fairness sound superficially progressive, and they have the potential to open up previously untouchable policy questions such as how to reform a housing market that locks in inequality across and within generations. But such rhetoric can also draw a veil over perennial questions about what fairness really means: whether, for example, social justice is located in more or less universalism in public spending; in this year’s budget or in the balance of tax and spend over decades. Focusing on young people as if they are a single interest group obscures inequalities within age groups and so ducks some vital policy questions.

Increased political engagement by young people has the potential to move British politics substantially to the left, but it might also imply the triumph of a new, cohort-based idea of fairness over traditional class politics, with potentially regressivepolicy implications. If Labour are now in the business of preparing for government, these dilemmas must be confronted at some point. In the meantime, the challenge will be to make the conversation about the 2017 election a dialogue with young people, and not just about them.

This blog was originally published by the Fabian Society and is republished here with permission.