Many graduates are stuck in low-skilled jobs Photo: Dan Kitwood
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The young are losing the battle of the generations – and it could get even worse

An ageing population is bad news for the young.

It’s fashionable to talk about young people’s great power to influence the general election. But the real story is how easy young people are to ignore - and the lack of impact they will have on May 7.

The last five years have remorselessly proved one thing: people who vote get stuff; non-voters don't get much. According to Ipsos-Mori, under-25s were 32% less likely than over-65s to vote in 2010. Young people have been paying a brutal price for this discrepancy ever since.

Contrary to the myth, this Parliament has not witnessed a ramping up in income inequality. But what has escalated is intergenerational inequality: the state is cossetting grandparents like never before while squeezing the young.

Almost every major spending decision of the last five years has followed this trend. What David Willletts observed five years ago – “The baby-boomers have concentrated wealth in the hands of their own generation” – is truer than ever today.

Working age social security has been cut. Investment in capital projects and infrastructure that would benefit young people has been slashed. All the while, over-65s have enjoyed unprecedented largesse: Sir Alan Sugar still gets his free bus pass and winter fuel allowance. Most extravagant of all is the triple lock – guaranteeing that pension will rise by whichever is highest out of inflation, average earnings or an annual rise of 2.5%. No other state benefit is treated so generously.

OAPs have been recession-proof, and left the entire burden of recession and public spending cuts for the working age population. After tax and benefits, the average pensioner household is 9.4% better off than in 2007-08 – but the average working-age household is 4.6% worse off.

Young people today are the most educated generation in history. But it doesn't matter: the notion that each generation will do better than the last has been shattered. Youth unemployment, though still greater than for other ages, is falling – but mainly because many graduates are doing jobs that do not require degrees. Over the last five years, real median earnings for 22-29-year-olds have fallen 12.7%. Hourly pay for 22-29 year-olds is now lower than at any time since 1998.

Perhaps nothing highlights intergenerational injustice quite like housing. We are used to hearing about the housing “crisis” – but a crisis is meant to have a decisive end-point, not drag interminably on. House prices rising inexorably are not inevitable: they are the result of successive governments failing to build enough houses. By driving up the value of homes, this suits the asset-rich old; for the young, the inertia on housing is a disaster. The “solution” offered this Parliament – the help-to-buy scheme that loads young people with more debt – is nothing of the sort, and the Conservative manifesto promise to ramp up right-to-buy threatens (as John Elledge brilliantly explained) to further depress supply and thereby make the housing crisis much worse. 

The Labour Party is making a great play of its offer to the young, especially its pledge to reduce tuition fees, funded by reducing tax relief on pensions for high earners. But the truth is that it is still shamelessly indulging the grey vote: while it would means-test the winter fuel allowance, saving a measly £100 million a year, it is committed to maintaining TV licenses, free bus passes and the triple lock for all pensioners. That means that, like the Conservatives, the only way it could cut is at the expense of the young. “Both main parties' commitments to ring-fence universal benefits for the over-65s while other generations are likely to suffer scythe-like cuts undermines any claims they may make about improving the lot of young people,” is the depressing verdict of Ashley Seager, the co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation.

It is alluring to think that the young just need to vote for this generational injustice to end. If only it were that simple: as Age UK showed by booing the Prime Minister last month, pensioners amount to a formidable political pressure group. And an ageing population means their voices are becoming ever more powerful: by 2020 over half of the electorate will be over 50 years of age. The only certainty for young people is that not voting will make it even worse. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.