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29 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Was Jeremy Corbyn’s “youthquake” all hot air?

School cuts, not tuition fees, look to have been Labour’s biggest vote-mover.

By Stephen Bush

So much for the “youthquake”? The British Electoral Survey has found that turnout did not increase among 18- to 24-year-olds at the 2017 general election, although it did increase in areas with larger numbers of 18- to 24-year-olds. (The report neatly and amusingly sums up the difference by using toddlers: turnout went up even more in areas with large numbers of toddlers. There evidently was not a large surge in toddler voting in 2017.)

The finding has some big implications as far as analyses of the 2017 contest goes. Some thoughts:

People are still misusing the word “young”

Apologies to regular readers if I am starting to sound like a stuck record here: while the report’s authors avoid this trap, political and media analysis of the 2017 election has tended to misunderstand the word “young”, which has led to poor understanding of what happened at the 2017 election.

As far as British demographics go,“young” refers to everyone under average age, in other words: anyone aged 39 or younger. But much of the Tory response, both from the government and their media allies, has been to focus on the 18- to 24-year-olds demographics.

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Actually, as this report underlines, the electorally significant group was 25- to 44-year-olds, both because they switched from Conservative to Labour and also because they voted in increased numbers compared to the 2015 contest.

There’s a risk of overreacting here

A lot of the headlines are of the “there was no youthquake” variety. That isn’t quite true for two reasons: firstly, because as I’ve said, there was a spike in turnout among the 25- to 44-year-olds, particularly the 35- to 44-year-olds.

It also isn’t true because there was a realignment of how the under-40s voted at the last election. Yes, with the exception of the horror year of 1983, Labour has always beaten the Conservatives among the 18- to 24-year-olds, but traditionally, 30- to 40-year-olds have voted for the governing party: that is to say, they have voted Tory more often than not in the democratic era.  At the last election, two things happened: the first was that 30-40 year olds switched to Labour and the second was that the Conservatives went from losing among 18- to 24-year-olds to losing very badly among 18- to 24-year-olds.

That last doesn’t seem like it matters, but see it like this: the Conservatives lost Kensington by 20 votes. Let’s say for argument’s sake that 1,000 18- to 24-year-olds voted in Kensington, of which 900 voted for the Labour party. As you can see, even losing that vote 800 to 200 would have kept the seat Tory.

So while some of the “youthquake” analysis was overwritten, going from that to “there was no youthquake” is, I think, going too far the other way and is something of a misread of the report.

It’s a reminder the successful aren’t always right

As the BES report smartly notes, that Labour did well at the last election, and did well in the type of seats rich with the voters they were targeting, means that the party’s approach of targeting 18- to 24-year-olds paid off.

But of course, not everything a campaign does works out even if they gain both votes, and more importantly under the British system, seats. (It’s also worth noting that Labour also did an awful lot to win over voters in that 30-45 demographic and did succeed.)

It’s not just that history is written by the winners, it’s that even non-combatants tend to write up the winners.

School cuts were probably more important than tuition fees

The BES team’s very funny one-liner about toddlers voting is getting a lot of attention, but the joke also contains an important truth about the election: which is that, actually, the areas that Labour did best in were ones with large numbers of parents of children at primary school or younger. (That 35-44 group again!)

If you walked around any residential neighbourhood during the summer of 2017, you won’t have failed to notice the large yellow posters detailing the damage that could be wrought by school cuts, which were simply the visible expression of the anxiety felt by parents over planned cuts to school spending, anxieties that grew still stronger as headteachers – not usually a demographic that is given to party-political or pro-Labour expression – wrote to parents warning about the consequences of budget cuts.

It makes Labour’s tuition fee pledge harder to defend

One of the unanswerable questions in my job is how to balance assessing a policy’s electoral merits versus its policy costs. The Conservatives’ long freeze in fuel duty is a good example: from a policy perspective, it’s open-and-shut: the freeze has cost around £50bn and encourages unproductive and environmentally damaging private transportation. From a electoral perspective: the freeze has eased some of the pressures on incomes caused by the long period of stagnant pay growth. Without the duty freeze, the Conservatives would have a far stronger set of public finances and be a better position to take on Corbyn. But equally, the fuel duty freeze might have led to Ed Miliband winning the 2015 election.

Labour’s tuition fee pledge is similar: indeed, at around £11bn a year it works out as similar outlay to the fuel duty freeze. There is not a lot to recommend it as a policy: it costs a lot, the beneficiaries are earning well above average, and as John McDonnell’s fiscal rule commits Labour to balancing day-to-day spending it means foregone spending elsewhere.

However, as I wrote after the election, on 9 June 2017, the electoral case looked to be open-and-shut: the freeze allowed Labour to unlock a large amount of support for tax rises on those earning above £70,000.

Now that’s less clear, which makes the argument that the £11.5bn would be better spent ending the welfare cap or introducing 2-11 schooling or completely transforming nutrition in  schools or whatever more attractive.

So much for the importance of the tuition fee write-off

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, two ideas a) that Jeremy Corbyn promised not just to end tuition fees but to write off existing tuition fee debt and b) this was a significant mover of voters in the 2017 elction has gained a powerful currency on parts of the British right. 

There were already a couple of problems with this one: the first of course is that the promise (such as it was) was made in a single interview by Jeremy Corbyn in the NME, and most voters of any age do not notice any one single interview, regardless of outlet. The second is that even when you put the offending remarks in front of voters and ask what they make of it, just 20 per cent of the relevant age bracket interpret the NME interview as a pledge to eradicate existing tuition fee debt.

Now to these not-inconsiderable problems we can add a third: we now know that Labour did best among voters who were, yes, young, but too old to be beneficiaries of the tuition fee write-off. In that vital 30-44 group, most graduates were on the old £1,000 tarriff and are now debt free, and most of the 30-44 group aren’t graduates anyway. On average, their children are too young to benefit from the write-off either.

Their children are, however, hit by school spending cuts. 

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