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10 July 2014updated 21 Sep 2021 5:06am

You are probably becoming more conservative

New research suggests we are defined by the political events we experience between 14 and 24. But they may only shape us so much – voters appear to drift to the right over time.

By Harry Lambert

“I’ll always hate the Tory party. The only problem now is that I hate Labour too.”

This recent confession by James Bradfield – frontman of the Manic Street Preachers, one of Britain’s biggest bands in the 1990s – has highlighted how we choose our political identities.

Most people choose a political side. Bradfield’s irritation came from no longer having one to support. “I hate the idea there’s no one left to vote for”, he said, referring to Russell Brand’s ambitious polemic from the autumn.

Some voters may feel a similar despair, but most are likely to have already chosen their team in next year’s general election. Two-thirds of voters had already done so before the election campaign started in 2010.

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And it appears that around a third of voters will never vote for a particular political party.

Many of us clearly form set political identities. We define ourselves by being for or against a particular party, who we take as best or worst representating our idea of how to run a country.

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But when does this happen? Research published this week by the New York Times has shed light on the issue.

They suggest we are defined by what happens to us between 14 and 24. Events do not affect us evenly throughout our lives. By our mid-20s we have already been affected by our most formative political moments.

Things that happen at 18 have three times the impact than those we experience at 40. We become almost impervious to new information or ideas in our mid-40s, and although we register a little more in our 50s, we are still less affected by events then than when we were 10.

We are, therefore, shaped by the administrations we grow up with far more than those we work under. The views of the next generation can often be heard in the cries of their bands – as the Manic Street Preachers once represented for some of those formed under Thatcher.

But the legacy of Thatcher – and any specific political event – may not be quite as impactful as it appears. People seem to move to the right over time regardless of the individual experiences of their generation.

Those formed by the Thatcher years were born in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They are the generation now reaching their early 40s and winning positions of influence in many fields. 

And yet, despite Thatcher’s cultural unpopularity, that generation does not appear to be especially left-wing.

They are half as left-wing as today’s 18-24 year olds, who were shaped under New Labour and might have been expected to react against what became a stumbling government.

66 per cent of 18-24 year olds support Labour, the Greens or the Lib Dems, while just 27 per cent support the Tories or UKIP. In comparison, 58 per cent of those over 60 support the latter – the traditionally right-wing parties – with just 40 per cent of them supporting the more left-wing parties favoured by younger voters.

The Times’ data suggests that generations become more conservative. Baby boomers, those now aged between 49 and 68, have largely moved to the right including those who, thanks to JFK and the Democratic dominance of the decade, were well to the left in the 1960s.

The generation shaped by Thatcher also appear to have moved away from the well-documented discontent of the 1980s.

Specific political events may partly shape each generation, but they seem to come up against an immutable fact: most of us start on the left and drift to the right. 


[1] The age breakdowns come from averaging YouGov’s two most recent Sunday Times and two most recent mid-week Sun polls. 

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