FUTURE POLITICS

Generation Why?

What is driving the growing age gap in British politics and how the centre right can win over younger voters
Will Tanner, Neil O’Brien OBE MP, James Kanagasooriam
April 8, 2019
Generation Why?
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"We are from the 2017 and 2015 intakes. New polling for Onward shows that there are three million young people who say they would consider voting Conservative – but are not currently planning to. The party needs to reach out to these missing millions. The next Conservative manifesto must have strong policies to help young people get on in life. It must reach out to all parts of the country and all communities too. The Conservative party is at its best when it is a party for the whole nation."

42 Conservative MPs from the 2015 and 2017 parliamentary intakes

 

Age is the new dividing line in British politics

Younger and older generations have always been politically different, but never by this much. The generational schism exposed at the 2017 General Election was unprecedented. The gap between the youngest and oldest voters was three times the post-war average – a fifty percentage point increase on the median gap since 1945. Age, rather than class or income, is now the best predictor of vote intention.

This report – the result of a detailed 10,000 sample poll, conducted by Hanbury Strategy and the largest study of the generation gap since age became the key political dividing line in British politics – confirmed that age polarisation is not only here to stay but that the gap between younger and older generations is growing.

The Conservative vote is ageing at a faster rate than the general population, largely due to the party’s failure to convert large numbers of young potential voters. Following the 2017 election, 83% of Conservative voters were over the age of 45. Just 4% were under the age of 24 years old.

Meanwhile, Labour’s reliance on younger voters is growing. A sizeable proportion of older voters will now not even consider voting Labour, imposing a hard electoral ceiling and threatening the party longer-term as the population ages. In terms of composition, however, Labour remains much more generationally balanced: 53% of Labour voters are over the age of 45 and 47% under the age of 45.

The net result of these trends is that the “tipping point age” – the median age at which a voter is more likely to be Conservative than Labour – was 51 years old at the time of our polling, up from 47 at the 2017 General Election. Before the 2017 campaign, the tipping point was 34 years old.

The growing importance of age as an electoral dividing line has profound
implications for the future of British politics. It has already contributed to a changing electoral geography – accelerating Labour’s shift from working class Northern seats to diverse metropolitan boroughs and shifting the soul of the Conservative Party from Kensington to North Yorkshire.

If it continues, it may reconfigure the electoral map further, making youthful seats like Putney, Southampton Itchen and Stirling hard for the Conservatives to hold, and Labour heartlands with older age profiles, such as Bishop Auckland, Sedgefield and Don Valley, less impenetrable.

Polling by Hanbury Strategy

Summary of recommendations

Why this is the right policy

We set out a Ten-Point Plan to rejuvenate the centre right and build a mainstream coalition of voters from both older and younger generations.

  1. Keep taxes low.
  2. Balance the public finances
  3. Make the economy fairer, not just bigger.
  4. Punish companies that do not act responsibly. 
  5. Control immigration.
  6. Protect the environment, including the green belt
  7. Defend freedom of expression but promote a sense of belonging
  8. Prioritise apprenticeships and retraining over university. 
  9. Give women more reason to be positive.
  10. Do more to win over ethnic minorities.
  1. Keep taxes low. Every generation favours low taxes over more spending. 18-24s are most in favour (63%) of keeping more of their own money, potentially reflecting the fact they feel hard pressed financially.
  2. Balance the public finances People of all ages, including 58% of 18-24s, want government to live within its means.
  3. Make the economy fairer, not just biggerNearly two thirds of people favour “reducing the gap between rich and poor” over “working to create faster economic growth”, with 18-24s most in favour (67%).
  4. Punish companies that do not act responsibly.  Two thirds of people across all ages favour “tackling companies that behave badly” over “helping companies in the private sector to succeed”.
  5. Control immigration. There is net support for reducing immigration in every age bracket, within every ethnic group, and among Remain voters.
  6. Protect the environment, including the green belt. The environment is the third top issue for 18-24 year old voters and younger voters. All ages, including 18-24s favour protecting the green belt.
  7. Defend freedom of expression but promote a sense of belonging. All ages favour free speech, gay marriage and (aside from over 65s) transgender rights. Every group thinks community is in decline.
  8. Prioritise apprenticeships and retraining over university. 44% of people think too many people go to university, vs. 25% who say not enough. All ages support retraining and apprenticeships.
  9. Give women more reason to be positive. 8% of 18-24 year old women would vote Conservative today, which correlates heavily with pessimism: 56% of women think the next generation will be worse off than their own.
  10. Do more to win over ethnic minorities. Asian voters (42%) are nearly as likely to consider voting Conservative as White voters (44%), but only half as many would do so today. This is a big opportunity.

Summary of recommendations

We set out a Ten-Point Plan to rejuvenate the centre right and build a mainstream coalition of voters from both older and younger generations.

  1. Keep taxes low.
  2. Balance the public finances
  3. Make the economy fairer, not just bigger.
  4. Punish companies that do not act responsibly. 
  5. Control immigration.
  6. Protect the environment, including the green belt
  7. Defend freedom of expression but promote a sense of belonging
  8. Prioritise apprenticeships and retraining over university. 
  9. Give women more reason to be positive.
  10. Do more to win over ethnic minorities.

Why this is the right policy

  1. Keep taxes low. Every generation favours low taxes over more spending. 18-24s are most in favour (63%) of keeping more of their own money, potentially reflecting the fact they feel hard pressed financially.
  2. Balance the public finances People of all ages, including 58% of 18-24s, want government to live within its means.
  3. Make the economy fairer, not just biggerNearly two thirds of people favour “reducing the gap between rich and poor” over “working to create faster economic growth”, with 18-24s most in favour (67%).
  4. Punish companies that do not act responsibly.  Two thirds of people across all ages favour “tackling companies that behave badly” over “helping companies in the private sector to succeed”.
  5. Control immigration. There is net support for reducing immigration in every age bracket, within every ethnic group, and among Remain voters.
  6. Protect the environment, including the green belt. The environment is the third top issue for 18-24 year old voters and younger voters. All ages, including 18-24s favour protecting the green belt.
  7. Defend freedom of expression but promote a sense of belonging. All ages favour free speech, gay marriage and (aside from over 65s) transgender rights. Every group thinks community is in decline.
  8. Prioritise apprenticeships and retraining over university. 44% of people think too many people go to university, vs. 25% who say not enough. All ages support retraining and apprenticeships.
  9. Give women more reason to be positive. 8% of 18-24 year old women would vote Conservative today, which correlates heavily with pessimism: 56% of women think the next generation will be worse off than their own.
  10. Do more to win over ethnic minorities. Asian voters (42%) are nearly as likely to consider voting Conservative as White voters (44%), but only half as many would do so today. This is a big opportunity.

Until now, we have not known what is driving the age gap – particularly why younger people are turning away from the centre right in such unprecedented numbers. Strategists and commentators have argued various theories – for example, that young people are economically more left wing, or more socially liberal, or have less material wealth, or simply are more likely to be graduates or from an ethnic minority background – and are thus more likely to vote Labour.

Our polling shows that while these factors account for some of the gap, they do not account for all of it. The two greatest influences on vote intention are economic attitudes and material difference. These only account for half the difference. Even if the Government gave younger voters the same rates of home ownership and young people had the same economically liberal attitudes as their grandparents, only one in two would vote Conservative. Age is a standalone factor that cannot be accounted for, suggesting a cohort effect with younger people structurally more likely to vote Labour.

We find that older voter groups prioritise different issues to younger voter groups. But there is overlap, the who most important issues for every age group were Brexit and the NHS. Other top issues were the economy, crime and housing. The environment is particularly important for younger voters. It is the 3rd top issue for 18–24 year olds (29%), compared to 12th most important for over-65s. In contrast, immigration is the 4th top issue for the over 65s but 15th for 18–24 year olds. Health and crime are seen as particularly important among older people.

But what about those who would actually consider voting Conservative? Looking across all age groups, crime is seen as even more important by Conservative considerers than by the general population. Young Conservative Considerers (under 35) rate the environment as the 6th most important issue – while current Conservative voters rank the environment 13th. Welfare is also an issue which is valued higher by younger people than the general population.

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