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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. 

By Adam Swersky

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.

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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.