Why the young favour pensioner benefits over those for the unemployed

Focus groups reveal that young voters view older groups as more deserving. The sense of welfare as an insurance policy is being lost.

More than three-quarters of over 65s voted at the last election, compared with less than half of those aged 18–24. It is tempting to see this as the real reason behind the Prime Minister’s New Year pledge to protect pensions spending. Behind all the talk of "values" there is a fairly straightforward piece of electoral arithmetic.

In practice, however, this is more than simply pandering to the 'grey vote'. Demos/Ipsos-MORI research shows that those born between 1980 and 2000 are three times as likely to choose pensions than unemployment benefits as a priority for public spending. Young people may have borne the brunt of the downturn, with youth unemployment topping 1 million at times, but support for older generations remains strong. This is what Cameron is playing into when he says that people who have worked hard should have dignity and security in old age – and why George Osborne feels more comfortable targeting benefits for those under-25.

Those who worry that the young are getting a raw deal must engage with why public opinion tilts in this direction. Focus groups reveal that people want to protect pensioners not because they think they will benefit one day, or even that their own parents or grandparents will benefit now, but because they see older groups as more deserving. This is because of a combination of two things: the perception that the elderly are vulnerable, through no fault of their own, and that they have earned entitlements through contributions over time.

The contrast with attitudes to the unemployed is striking. Many see those out of work as more responsible for their own situation and less likely to have put into the system. Britain may have one of the stingiest systems of support for the unemployed in Europe, but that is because those in work fear they are subsidising those who are not. The sense of welfare as an insurance policy, that all those who are able to pay contribute to, is being lost.

Of course, self-interest is part of the story. Older groups put pensions top of their priority list, while younger groups think child benefit is more important. But what the 'grey vote' narrative misses is the extent to which different generations are willing to make sacrifices for one another. There may be more money to be saved in the pensions budget, but there are more votes in protecting it. 

People enter the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Duncan O’Leary is deputy director of Demos

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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