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20 June 2017updated 05 Mar 2019 4:02pm

How young voters powered Labour’s surge

Age, not class, is now the defining divide between Labour and Conservative voters.

By Bobby Duffy

Our new analysis of How Britain Voted shows that age and generation were crucial factors in the outcome of the 2017 election, in a way we have never previously measured.

On party support, we saw the biggest age gap between Labour and Conservatives since we started compiling comprehensive statistics on how people voted in the 1970s. As the chart shows, there is now almost a perfect mirror between the generations: young people were over twice as likely to vote Labour as Conservative, and older people were almost the exact opposite. 

And much more than this, the turnout gap between the age groups is smaller than we or others have measured in decades: registered young people were around 20 percentage points more likely to vote than in 2015, at 64 per cent – while turnout among older people softened, to around 74 per cent, down around 5 percentage points. 

The democratic deficit between young and old has been massively reduced, and political parties should take note.  As the Intergenerational Commission at the Resolution Foundation have outlined over previous months, and again today looking at wealth, the difference in opportunity and outcomes between generations are some of the most important challenges facing the country. 

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This sort of voting shift raises a number of questions – what caused it, will it last and what will the consequences be for political parties?  And there are a number of credible explanations, some of which point to how long-lasting it will be.  

First the campaigns and leadership of the main parties will have played a part, and may be fleeting as circumstances and strategies change. Jeremy Corbyn mobilised the young in a way not seen in recent general elections, and the Conservative manifesto alienated their core older support, at least partly through uncertainty around their pensions and inheritance. 

But Brexit may also have played an important role – as much as a political event as an issue. Our turnout estimates for the different age groups in the General Election in 2017 are remarkably similar to the turnout patterns for the EU Referendum. The levels of voting by age in 2017 were much closer to that supposedly one-off event than they were to recent general elections. This is a key explanation for why most polls ahead of the election were too low on Labour – we expected people to turn out in a similar age profile to other elections, but they actually voted like it was the referendum. 

This is something pollsters should have maybe picked up on more: we know from countless academic studies that voting is habitual – once you start, you are much more likely to continue. And while the young didn’t quite turn out enough to be decisive in the referendum, the very fact it happened may well have changed the course of voting behaviour for many in that generation. 

So does this mean an easy march to power for Labour in the future, given they have an energised youth massively more likely to support them? Not necessarily.  Our work on generational difference shows two things. 

First, the old adage that people get more Conservative as they age is broadly true. As the chart below shows, Generation X (now mainly in their 40s) have become much more Conservative than the 18-34 age group they started out in.

But our analysis also shows that young people have no over-riding party affiliation in the way previous generations did. Only 20 per cent of Millennials feel they are closer to one particular political party, compared with around 60 per cent of the oldest generation.

This doesn’t mean that younger groups are politically apathetic – as their turnout levels now attest. But it does mean that political parties are going to have to work hard to keep them. It’s a more fluid attitude to politics – a challenge for parties, but also healthy, stopping parties taking bloc votes for granted. 

The short-term impact of the 2017 general election may be more uncertainty and mess – but the long-term effects of having three major political events in the last couple of years may be a better balance of political power across the generations, which can only be a good thing.

Bobby Duffy is managing director of Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute.

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