In recent years, age has come to rival social class as a determinant of voting behavior. Broadly speaking, older votes have higher turnout rates than younger voters, and at key democratic moments, such as the referendum on independence in Scotland in 2014 and the 2015 general election, their votes have proved decisive in determining the outcome. Labour – in common with many other European social democratic parties – has suffered a loss of support amongst older voters that it has not been able to redress at a national level by mobilising younger voters or the non-voting working class. Yet it has been able to win in the big urban centres where younger left leaning voters have greater weight in the electorate.
Last week’s elections in Scotland, Wales and England bear out these patterns. Labour won handsomely in London and in cities like Bristol. These cities have much more youthful populations than the national average, allowing Labour to overhaul the advantage the Conservatives have amongst older voters. In London, the final You Gov poll showed Zac Goldsmith ahead by 51% to Sadiq’s Khan’s 28% amongst over 65s, but this was not enough to offset the lead Khan had amongst younger and middle aged voters. In London, only 11.5% of the population is over 65, compared to 17.5% in England as a whole.
Conversely, in Scotland, the final You Gov poll showed the Conservatives leading all parties, including the SNP, in the over 65s: the Conservatives had 35% of the older vote share, compared to 33% for the SNP and 22% for Labour (this poll somewhat underestimated the actual level of support for the Conservatives and slightly overestimated the level of support for the SNP on the constituency vote). The blue ruff around Scotland’s neck in the map of the Scottish Parliament results shows the success the Conservatives had in translating that support from older voters into seats. Galloway and West Dumfries, Dumfriesshire, and Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, all have more than 21% of the population aged over 65.
Support for the SNP falls by twenty percentage points amongst the over 65s, compared to the 50-64 year olds, reflecting far higher levels of commitment to unionism amongst older voters (66% of the over 65s are currently No voters, according to You Gov, rising to 71% if “don’t knows” and “wouldn’t vote” are excluded). But the SNP now commands the allegiance of the majority of the Scottish working class – 54% to Labour’s 22%. This is the decisive shift that has taken place since the independence referendum, allowing the SNP to sweep the board in Labour’s former Glaswegian and central belt heartlands. It leaves Labour with wide but shallow support across all social classes and age demographics – at just over a fifth of the electorate, peaking at 27% of 16-24s.
Similar patterns can be observed in Wales. The “on the day” poll conducted by YouGov and Cardiff University for ITV Wales – which overestimated support for UKIP, but which otherwise fairly closely predicted the final results for elections to the Welsh Assembly – showed Labour trailing badly in the over 65s at 18%, compared to 34% for the Conservatives and 19% for UKIP. Labour was comfortably ahead in the 25-64 age groups, but lost some support to the Greens and Plaid in the 18-24 year old demographic.
In English local government, almost all the areas in which Labour lost support by more than 10 points have populations that are older than the national average, and in most of these council elections, the decline in the Labour vote was accompanied by a substantial rise in the UKIP vote. Labour’s big city cosmopolitan success doesn’t travel far into suburban, small city and rural England.
Some academics and commentators think that London is the future: that as more of Britain comes to resemble the ethnically diverse, liberal and educated population of London, the voting patterns we see in the capital will be replicated elsewhere. That is the story in the USA, where the Democrats have stitched together a new voting coalition of rising forces: Latinos, African-Americans and well educated urban populations. With its ageing electorate, and steep gradient of age inequality in turnout, the UK looks a long way from that scenario. More likely, the complex interactions of class, age and national identity that we see in the different localities, cities and nations of the UK will produce more treacherous terrain, in which stitching together progressive coalitions is much harder than marshaling centre-right majorities – at least for the foreseeable future.