All sorts of terrible opinions are flying around in the wake of last week’s election result. Over the weekend, I spotted both “This was a mandate for Hard Brexit” and “The DUP have always been our friends” in the wild, which suggests to me that several prominent members of the Tory commentariat may have been, unbeknown to the rest of us, suffering from severe oxygen starvation for quite some time.
Perhaps the most infuriating bad take, though, and certainly one of the most prevalent, is that the Labour Party’s 40 per cent share of the vote was gained entirely by bribing millennials to vote for it. Former Downing Street communications director Andy Coulson was scathing in GQ, accusing Jeremy Corbyn of making a “deeply cynical offer to buy those young votes with a promise to drop tuition fees”. My old mate Daniel Hannan MEP put it even more strongly, writing an article for the Washington Examiner under the headline, “Young Brits vote for free stuff”.
As you’d expect, for an argument made by Daniel Hannan, this is complete and utter bullshit of the most self-serving and least thoughtful kind.
Firstly, while we don’t yet have the complete data, it’s already clear that far too many votes swung to Labour for the result to be explained entirely by young people voting for anything. Youth turnout does seem to have been up (witness the swing in university seats); but Labour also received a big swing among people aged 25-44.
Even the bottom end of this age group is significantly too old to benefit from free tuition fees. Why an overwhelmingly pro-European generation who can’t afford houses should have voted against the Conservative Party is one of life’s little mysteries, I guess.
Secondly, it’s patronising. It assumes that young people could only have voted Labour because they stand to benefit personally from its policies – rather than, say, they believe in well-funded public services or a welfare safety net. These columnists seem to think that people could only vote the way they do for selfish reasons: I fear that may say more about them than it does about the generation they’re deriding.
My real problem with their argument, though, is this: what is actually wrong with voting for a party that you believe will spend money in ways that will benefit you? I suppose you can frame that as “bribery” if you want, but then, to the first approximation, every manifesto in history has gone out of its way to somehow bribe somebody or another. (One exception, to be fair, seems to have been Theresa May’s recent effort; this may go some way to explaining the events of the last week.)
There is of course a generation that our politicians have gone out of their way to throw goodies at over a period of decades. In their youth, the British offered them free education, university grants and generous unemployment benefits. As they grew up, it ensured they had access to home ownership, and as they got older, it cut their taxes. When the private pension system hit trouble, it encouraged them to buy other people’s houses too, and, terrified of losing their votes, it created the “triple lock” to guarantee the value of the state pension.
The logical corollary of all the terrible “Corbyn buys the votes of the young” takes is that, somehow, offering financial incentives to vote for a particular party is some dreadful new phenomenon in British politics. But it isn’t: successive governments have been bribing the vast baby boomer electorate to vote for them for more than 40 years.
This might have been fine when wages were soaring. For the last decade or so, though, they’ve flat-lined: boomer-centric policies have meant asking millennials to pay for their parents to have privileges they are unlikely to have for themselves.
I don’t believe for a moment that Corbyn’s manifesto cynically bought the votes of the young. But I rather wish it had. It’s about time somebody thought them worth bribing.