Why Britain's ageing population won't save the Tories

The Conservatives lost every demographic but the fastest-growing: the retired. Here's why they're still in big trouble. 

NS

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YouGov have produced the first detailed breakdown of who exactly voted for the parties on 8 June, and there is one particularly striking statistic: for the first time ever, Labour is the party for everyone who labours – they won every single working-age demographic. The only group that the Conservatives had a lead over the Conservatives were the retired.

They kept power because of their silver firewall – they did very well with pensioners of all ages but particularly with those aged over 75.

What I’m hearing from some Tory politicians is that, as Britain’s population is ageing – the over 65s are the fastest growing section of the British population – they don’t need to worry about their electoral setback. In a few years, they’ll have a majority through demographic change. And this is true – assuming that today’s 55-year olds vote like today’s 60-year olds in 2022, the Conservatives would win comfortably with the exact same demographic breakdown that has seen them scrabbling around for a parliamentary majority. 

We call this a “cohort effect”. Some aspects of voter behaviour stay with us forever, but others are specific to our age or location. (If you think about it, someone who lives in a city centre probably isn’t that bothered if the government raises tax on petrol, someone who lives in the suburbs and needs a car to get to work probably is.)

What has tended to happen is there is a pretty strong cohort effect where, as people get older, they become more likely to vote Conservative. But there is a pretty big reason that won’t hold true anymore. A house-sized one in fact.

What has happened in pretty much every generation since universal suffrage came to Britain is that as people get older they become more affluent, more likely to have a mortgage and more likely to own a house outright.

But the trouble for the Conservatives is that that isn’t happening anymore. It’s not just that people are having to wait longer to get on the housing ladder, but that many of them aren’t doing so at all. What set Theresa May apart from previous Conservative leaders is they all had plans to make more Conservatives. David Cameron and George Osborne had Help to Buy – a policy that stoked house price inflation all the more but created a small but electorally vital chunk of dual-earner couples who owned their homes to the Conservatives. (The difficulty though is that people who live in houses in which 95 per cent of the value is taken up in debt get very angry if they feel the government is taking unnecessary risks with their house price. Anecdotally, from talking to defeated Conservatives, this was behind some of the slippage in their vote.)

Margaret Thatcher of course had the right to buy your council house and allowed people to buy shares in privatised industries. Harold Macmillan and Stanley Baldwin both oversaw big booms in the number of houses being built. They all had plans to decisively increase the number of people who would vote Conservative. Anthony Eden not only talked about the need to create “a property-owning democracy”, but did a great deal to help one along.

The difficulty is if what you want for Britain is for it to be a property-owning democracy, there was rather more in the Labour manifesto for you than the Conservative one. Unless the Tory party has a policy plant to give today’s 40somethings the same things that the over 60s have to protect, cohort effects won’t save them.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.