The collapse of Labour’s Red Wall owes more to age than class

As young people leave their hometowns, the Tories pile up majorities among the older voters who remain. 

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We all know the drill by now. Why did Labour lose Hartlepool? And the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoral elections? Because, owing to its obsession with niche metropolitan issues such as “human rights” and “wages” and “preferring the planet not to be burned to a crisp”, it has lost the working class. That’s why the Red Wall is crumbling; that’s why, after eleven years of Conservative-led government, there was an eight-point swing towards the Tories.

I’m not really buying this, for all sorts of reasons. OK, these results don’t look great for Labour. But the pandemic has been, perversely, good for incumbents, even if their response was inadequate, and both the vaccination programme and the easing of lockdown, will also have aided the government. Many of the people pushing the narrative about the Red Wall are less interested in understanding and explaining British politics than they are in telling stories about how Labour is doomed.

[See also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]

In reality, the party made some scattered but surprising gains in contests across the south, including Hertfordshire, Surrey and West Sussex, which suggest that a narrative of Tory advance and Labour collapse is a little one-sided. (Personal favourite: the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough mayoral election. Conservative James Palmer was the only incumbent mayor to lose, which must have been pretty humiliating.)

But the biggest reason I don’t buy the idea that Labour has lost the working class is because, well, it hasn’t. If you divide the votes of under-55s at the 2019 general election into five groups based on income, the only one the Conservatives won was the highest-earning bracket. The reason the Tories keep winning is because they’ve got the overwhelming support of older voters. And thanks to the baby boomers, there are a lot of older voters right now.

Older voters can be working class too, of course. But a much smaller proportion of them work than in younger cohorts. At the same time, they’re more likely to own their own homes, and to have fixed incomes and the fear of inflation that goes with them. A retired Teesside steelworker can be working class in terms of their family, career history, self-image and so forth, while still having a different set of economic interests to a 25-year-old renter on a zero-hours contract. Labour is still winning the battle for the actual workers.

This age disparity in the two main parties’ coalitions is another key reason that the Red Wall is crumbling. There are fewer jobs in many post-industrial towns than there once were; the best-paid jobs, and those reserved for graduates, tend to cluster in big cities and university towns. What’s more, a much bigger share of the population goes to university than a couple of decades ago.

The result is that, every autumn, a significant minority of young people leave their home towns and never return. There’s some irony in the way Tory economic policies which have laid waste to industrial towns have ended up increasing their propensity to vote Tory – thanks in part to the fact one of the biggest exports from many of those Red Wall seats these days is Labour voters.

[See also: Keir Starmer is adrift. Who can supply the direction he so desperately lacks?]

So: no, the collapse of the Red Wall isn’t really about class. It’s about age. That, alas, doesn't mean that millennials only have to wait and that they will eventually be able to warp politics around themselves just as their parents have done.

A Reddit user named Jon Ahearn recently made a chart showing whether particular cohorts had been on the winning or losing side of every national election since 1974. It shows that, if you were born before the early 1970s, then a plurality of your cohort have won almost every election you have ever voted in. If you were born after the mid 1980s, a plurality of voters in your age group have lost almost every election you have ever voted in. For those born after 1990, that “almost every” drops to “every”.

The reason older voters have been so much more politically successful is simple: there are far more of them. They are called baby boomers for a reason. The eldest millennials are now a lot closer to 55 than they are entirely comfortable with – but there’s no reason to think they’ll suddenly assume political power when they get there. There just aren’t enough of them. (If anyone inherits the boomers’ crown, in fact, it’s more likely to be the slightly more numerous Generation Z.)

All this, incidentally, also means the claim that politics would be kinder to young people if only they showed up to vote is nonsense. There just aren’t enough of them to make a difference, and they are, anyway, inefficiently distributed around the country. Their votes have so far piled up in the inner cities, especially inner London, where they won’t bother the Tories.

But results such as Cambridgeshire are an early warning that this won’t last forever: Labour voters priced out of housing in the cities are increasingly moving to smaller towns which have historically been Tory. Sooner or later, the Blue Wall could start to crumble too.

[See also: Labour’s loss of Hartlepool is the final death rattle of a movement that has abandoned its heartlands]

Jonn Elledge is a freelance journalist, formerly assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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