Grandma killed Ed Miliband. Photo: Getty Images
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Labour's next leader must tackle the "Granny problem"

Ed Miliband was defeated by the grey vote, and it will only get bigger as the years go by. Labour needs to up its game. 

Bertolt Brecht once wrote, with a hint of irony, that it might be simpler “if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another”. But if the Labour Party could only choose some voters to “dissolve”, which would they be? Current wisdom points to three groups most responsible for the recent defeat: Nationalist Scots, working class “kippers”, and Tory marginalites who feared the mansion tax and the threat of Nicola Sturgeon high-tailing it up the M1 with sacks of English cash.

Yet none of the above did anywhere near as much harm to Labour’s fortunes as did the dramatic flight of the elderly to Cameron’s clutches. Professor John Curtice’s recent analysis of Ipsos-Mori data on voting intentions showed that, while Labour led the Tories by 16 points among 18-24 year olds, we lagged by a staggering 24 points among the over 65s. That’s the biggest gap in voting intentions between young and old that Ipsos-Mori has ever recorded.

And it hurt us. 18-24 year olds make up just 9 per cent of the British population, while nearly twice as many are over 65. Less than half the young population voted in May whereas turnout among the older group hit a phenomenal 78 per cent.
What did that mean in practice? Labour’s lead among young voters earned it a net gain of around 400,000 votes. The Tory lead among older voters earned them a net gain of more than 2.1 million votes. The difference explains almost all of Cameron’s margin of victory.*

In short, it’s Grandma’s fault.               

It’s almost as if we took Jacob Appel’s advice: “Choose old people for enemies. They die. You win.” Except they won – and we died.

And they’re not going away. With “Peak Grey” still ahead of us, the next Labour leader will need to grip this issue fast. Part of the solution is, of course, exuding competence. Older voters care about it even more than younger ones. A solid team with a sound economic message would go a long way to make our peace with Generation X.

Another key element is a credible policy offer. Aside from the basics of a strong economy and a better NHS, it’s not rocket science to imagine that the elderly take a great deal of interest in pensions and social care. Labour needs to be sure that our offer on those vast areas of public spending is competitive and compelling.

Yet the yawning gap in Labour support among older voters emerged despite us matching the Tories’ costly pension “triple lock” and despite our comparatively exciting vision for a new social care system that would be much more neatly joined-up with the NHS.

We won’t win back the over 65s with policy largesse alone. Which leaves us with the big bet: reframing the entire way we think about the old. Let’s start with some basic questions, like what is retirement in a world without a retirement age? What is a pensioner when a pension can be fully withdrawn at age 55, a full quarter century before a person’s expected death? What does it mean to be ageing when you can live a full and healthy life well past the ripe old age of 80?

Never before have older people had so many options, nor so many ambitions to live exciting and fulsome lives. At a time when the leading candidates for Mayor of London and President of the United States are both 67-year old women, this is an era of flexible work and foreign holidays, of staying home with the grandkids and going out on dates with single silver foxes.

The aspirational couple whose goal is to build a conservatory in the garden? They’re at least as likely to be a couple of retirees as they are to be fresh young newlyweds.

Today, the politics of old age is based on an antiquated idea of the elderly as a vulnerable and frail group, whose only needs are a stable income and high-quality care. This caricature couldn’t be further from the vibrancy and dynamism that characterises the lives of so many older citizens.

Forget New Labour. This is New Grandma.

Yes, she wants security in retirement and care when she needs it. But that will come later. This year, it’s about writing a food blog and figuring out how to Skype her nephews down under.

Too often, we have treated old age as if it were, to borrow a line, a foreign country…”they do things differently there”. We live in a world where many older people want to do things much the same as before, only better and with less middle-aged angst.

If Labour can find a way of speaking to the “greys with goals” about what they want to achieve in later life, we might just stand a chance of winning them over.

And then we can fight the next election without wishing we had a different electorate to fight for. 

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow. 

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses