For the third election in a row, the ageing baby boomer generation played a major role in securing a Tory victory.
According to the pollsters YouGov, Labour’s share of the vote fell among the over-65s by even more than last time – to under 20% in 2019 from 24% in 2017. In 2010, Ipsos Mori said that 31% of over-65s voted Labour. This time, the Conservatives’ vote share among the over-65s was more than 60%.
It seems like an obvious conclusion to draw, but it can’t be said loudly enough that the generational gap in voting between the Conservative and Labour parties, which hit a record level in 2017, grew again in this year’s election.
Such is the extent of the divide between the old and the young that age has become more important than class.
Go back to the period between 1987 and 2010 and the Conservatives never scored higher than 48% among over-65s and Labour never scored lower than 31%.
James Sloam, a reader in politics in the Democracy and Elections Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London, says the younger generations’ overwhelming rejection of the Conservatives in favour of Labour, and to some extent in favour of the Liberal Democrats and Greens, was more than offset by older voters embracing the Conservatives as never before.
In the “red wall” constituencies in the north where Labour did so badly in 2019 there are several trends that march hand in hand. Most of the towns are former coal mining centres that have failed to find alternative sources of employment over the past 35 years.
Even where there are high levels of employment, especially in the north-east and the east coast around Hull, the jobs often pay the minimum wage or not much above it. This failure to bring good jobs to the towns has forced young people to leave and left older people behind.
There is a Corbynite view that the Brexit issue means older people have only lent their votes and, with Brexit out of the way, a radical manifesto akin to the 2019 version can win them back.
Yet the red-wall boomers are not so different to older people elsewhere in the country who have long since flocked to the Tories. Yes, they had a particularly strong affiliation with Brexit and backed Boris Johnson’s determination to implement the 2016 referendum result. The Brexit effect cannot be dismissed. But when looking beyond Brexit to other issues that matter – apart from the NHS, which Theresa May and Johnson addressed, and effectively nullified, with their promises of much higher spending and new hospitals – older people put cultural issues higher than economic ones.
Poverty and the cost of living were important factors for younger voters when deciding who to vote for, according to post-election polling by Lord Ashcroft. By contrast, immigration remained a big issue for the over-65s; almost 20% said it influenced their vote, compared with less than 5% of 18- to 24-year-olds.
It might seem strange that the over-65s would be the group to rank the cost of living as their least important issue. But not, of course, if you have watched the dramatic rise in pensioner incomes over the past 30 years. Not for all, but for the majority.
It means that the old-fashioned leftwing view of a pensioner being someone who huddles over a two-bar electric fire and worries about having enough £1 coins to put in the meter describes a tiny minority of older people. Many of them spend their days at this time of year wondering where they should go for some winter sun.
If Labour strategists cared about winning elections, they might consider the influence of older voters and what policies they could adopt to win their confidence and trust.
A jumble of radical and largely unconnected big money-spending packages is not the way, not even in those areas where there is seemingly widespread acceptance of issues such as the environment. The Ashcroft polls show that climate change was the most important issue for 32% of 18-to-24-year-olds going into the polling booths but only 13% of the over-65s.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, argues that, without a rethink, the trend for young, better educated metropolitans to vote Labour and for older people in towns and rural areas to vote Tory is not going to change. Given this, the next Labour leader should make the subject of age a priority.
If climate change is the most important thing, then policies should be designed to protect older people. Likewise in respect of the broader progressive agenda. If there were a way to persuade better-off boomers to overcome their conservatism, a more expansive leftwing agenda might work. But three elections on the trot say otherwise.