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. 

A National Trust property. Photo: Getty
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The National Trust is right to bring gay history out of the closet

If you want to explore the history of Britain, you can't ignore its LGBT citizens.

Imagine seeing a monument to executed gay men and thinking literally anything other than, “how sad and poignant”. In September, the National Trust unveiled exactly such a memorial at one of their properties in Dorset. Kingston Lacy was once owned by William John Bankes, a man whose sexuality, in nineteenth century Britain, was a capital offence. The NT’s moving tribute to Lacy and so many others persecuted for being queer was deemed a “PC stunt” by the Daily Mail. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen somehow managed to find the monument “totally inappropriate”, adding that he looks to the Church for moral guidance – not the National Trust.

 But let me backtrack. I’m in the darkened vault of the Tower of London where the Crown Jewels are kept. The tour guide has just made a joke about vibrators.

The last time I was here, I was about nine and I was on a day out with my grandma. She made no mention whatsoever of sex toys. I wonder, actually, if this is the closest to this ceremonial bling a joke about vibrators has ever been made. I also wonder if there’s ever been a tour of the Tower of London where the guide – as my one did about fifteen minutes ago – has quite overtly slammed British imperialism. One thing I know for certain though: this is the first ever official LGBTQ tour of the Tower, organised by none other than Historic Royal Palaces – the charity that manages several of the UK’s grandest former homes.

 Earlier, at Traitors’ Gate, me and a tour group of about twenty people were told about Irish republican Roger Casement, who was executed, here, in 1916. Casement was dedicated to speaking out against the atrocities of imperialism, and was rumoured to be gay. But it wasn’t his alleged homosexuality that landed him in this thousand-year-old fortress-turned-prison, rather his involvement in the Easter Rising. King James I though – I later learn – was almost definitely gay or bi, having a number of “favourite” male courtiers. “Favourite” seeming to be a particularly coy seventeenth century euphemism for “gay lover”.

 The tour lasts about an hour and, although at times it seems to be slightly scraping the barrel for queer content, the pure effort of it is nothing short of heroic. The Crown Jewels section focused in on Queen Victoria, and all the anti-gay legislation introduced during her infamously prudish reign. On this tour, her freakishly tiny crown becomes a symbol of oppression rather than a cutesy royal knick-knack. Which, I can only imagine, would have the “gay agenda”-fearing monarchy groupies of middle England in a Faragean frenzy.

 This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised (male) gay sex in England and Wales. And with the sheer number of events, like the queer Tower tour, at palaces and historic institutions – from Hampton Court to the British Library – you’d think it was the Queen’s platinum jubilee.

Now for some word association.

 “National Trust”.

 Pensioners? Fruitcake? Dust? Anarchic genderqueer hook-up joint?

 Not so much that last one? Well then, it may come as a surprise that it was the fusty old National Trust, working alongside the National Archives, that recreated a historically accurate covert 1930s London gay bar. For a couple of nights in March this year, Soho’s Freud Café was transformed into “London’s most bohemian rendezvous”, the Caravan club. In a spectacularly and appropriately theatrical evening of incense, cocktails and vintage drag queens, the NT totally nailed the “illegal den of queer iniquity” thing. This was preceded by a historic LGBTQ tour of Soho, which, like the Tower tour, didn’t gloss over the brutality of the British establishment. The Soho tour was rightfully heavy on harrowing stories about police raids on queer venues. In fact, it was through police reports collected by the National Archives that the NT was able to recreate The Caravan (which was shut down by the police in 1934).

Further north in London, another LGBTQ event hosted by the National Trust was “Sutton House Queered”. If the idea of a Tudor manor house in Hackney isn’t surreal enough, in February the grade II listed former home to aristocracy was the setting of a queer art exhibition. Think – richly wood panelled great room containing a painting of Henry VIII in full bondage gear. This was also the debut of the first gender-neutral public toilet in an NT property.

And, in a display of borderline hilarious inevitability, the Daily Mail … raised objections. “Preserve us from a National Trust that’s so achingly right-on”, quacked a Mail headline in December last year, after the NT announced its plans for a series of “Prejudice and Pride” events marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. This July, the NT came under attack from the Mail, yet again, for outing late aristocrat, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. Ketton-Cremer left his Norfolk home to the Trust in 1969, and was supposedly outed as gay in a recent film for the “Prejudice and Pride” series. Whether or not the NT’s decision to discuss Ketton-Cremer’s sexuality was ethical, it’s a refreshing sort of controversy: the kind where an old British institution is actually quite blasé about gay sex, and the Mail goes nuts.

 Throughout this year, my inbox has been almost quite alarmingly full of press releases for queer-related events and promotions. From rainbow hummus (yes.) at the Real Greek restaurant, to “Pride at the Palace” at Hampton Court, more than ever, everyone seems to want a slice of the gay action. The Tate Britain’s “Queer British Art” exhibition, which opened in April, showcases a century (1867—1967) of sexually subversive works by LGBTQ artists. Although overwhelmingly male and posh, it’s hard to play down the importance of such a simultaneously harrowing and celebratory retrospective. In one room, A large and imposing portrait of Oscar Wilde stands right next to the actual door to his prison cell in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for the absolute non-crime of “gross indecency”. Even if Britain’s cultural institutions are just playing up to a trend, a very big part of me is into it.

 In July, I went to a panel discussion organised by Opening Doors London, a charity that provides support for older LGBTQ people. A group of queer people who were adults when the Sexual Offences Act was passed spoke about what this anniversary means to them. When I asked panellist Jane Traies, the author of The Lives of Older Lesbians: Sexuality, Identity & the Life Course, what she thought about the likes of the National Trust taking on queer history, she was understandably wary of the possible faddy-ness of it all.

“It’s good, though, that history itself should come out of the closet,” she said.


Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.