That the Labour party got 40% of the vote – against all odds – is being attributed to a higher turnout among young voters. Thiemo Fetzer‘s analysis finds that older voters did not turn up to vote, relative to younger voters. He also finds that in many places, the older vote was split between the two main parties, possibly due to the controversial social care provisions in the Conservative manifesto.
During the election campaign, all opposition parties strongly appealed to the young – to register to vote and participate in the election. The Conservative Party, which usually cashed in majorly on the grey vote never participated in campaigns to encourage voter participation. In some sense, the Conservative party has thrived due to the voluntary disenfranchisement of the young. Was the 2017 General Election different?
A simple look at the turnout by the age distribution of the resident population is quite telling. That is, for every constituency, we observe the age distribution of the resident population across five bins as of the 2011 census: younger than 15, between 15 and 30, between 30 and 45, between 45 and 60 and above 60. The grey vote is typically referred to as the voting by the population aged above 60. Since we do not observe actual turnout by age, we can only see statistical associations between an age profile and the underlying overall turnout in a constituency.
In 2015 the picture looked as follows: places that had a higher share of people in the younger than 15 years age bin in 2011, saw significantly lower turnout. In particular, places that have a 1% higher share in the resident population in that age cohort saw, on average, a 0.27 percentage points lower turnout. On the other hand, constituencies with a high share of those aged between 45-60 (as measured in 2011) saw in 2015 a significantly higher turnout.
How did this picture change in the 2017 Election?
Labour had an election program that explicitly appealed to young voters and campaigned with a program that would at least attempt to tackle the UK’s vast problem of intergenerational inequalities and social problems that were at heart of the EU Referendum result [also here]. This could have helped mobilise (young) voters to turn out to vote. At the same time, the Conservative manifesto had some provisions which entailed further benefits cuts to older people, possibly inducing some of the older voters who otherwise would not have voted, to turn up and vote.
The below picture plots out the estimated effect of differential population age group shares (as per the 2011 census) on overall turnout. This bears some surprise: turnout dropped significantly in places that have a high share of residents aged between 45-60. There are significant upticks among the younger cohorts, especially those aged younger than 15 in 2011 and those aged between 30 and 45 in 2011. This suggests a slightly different picture: the composition of the electorate changed significantly towards a younger electorate turning up to vote relative to the (soon to be) grey voting population of those aged 45-60 in 2011.
Which party benefited from changing turnout? Some regression evidence
A simple way to address this question is to study turnout and the vote shares for the Labour and Conservative parties in a reduced form panel regression, comparing outcomes in constituencies in 2017 relative to 2010 and 2015. We can use a measure of the (potential) share of young voters based on the age composition of constituencies as per the 2011 census. The question to ask here is whether turnout increased differentially in constituencies that boast an, on average, younger electorate. This can be done in a difference-in-difference framework, thus exploiting variation only within constituencies over time.
In particular, I estimate the following difference-in-difference specification using a balanced constituency level panel data set across the 2010, 2015 and 2017 UK general elections.
Where Int captures a cross-sectional measure that varies across parliamentary constituencies. There are three dependent variables I look at: overall turnout in percent of the electorate; the share of the Labour party; and the share of the Conservative party. In terms of Interaction terms, I study the (resident) population share that is younger than 30 and older than 60 based on the 2011 census.
The results are presented in the below table. Panel A focuses on the “young vote”. The results confirm the prior assessment that turnout in places that have a relatively young voting population was markedly higher in 2017 relative to 2010 and 2015. A one standard deviation increase in the resident population share aged 30 or below in 2011 would increase the turnout by around 1%. Column 2 highlights that places with a relatively young population disproportionately voted Labour – a one standard deviation increase in the share of the population younger than 30 in 2011 translates into an increase in labour vote share by 2.7%.
The grey vote is presented in Panel B and the result here is basically the mirror image compared to Panel A. A higher share of population 60 or above implies less turnout (relative to having a younger population) and translates into markedly lower vote shares for the Labour party, but increased vote shares for the Conservatives.
This Table is only meaningful if we contrast the “grey vote” with the “young vote” relative to a common omitted category – that is the age group between 30 and 60. This is presented in Panel C. Here we see that relative to the “middle age” group, constituencies that have a relatively young population saw a dramatic increase in turnout. Turnout among the older population stayed pretty much constant.
Columns 2 and 3 highlight that places with a relatively young population disproportionately voted Labour. A 1% increase in the resident share of young people relative to the middle category of 30-60 year aged residents, translates nearly one to one into an increased vote share for the Labour party (column 2). However, the results also indicate that in places that have a relatively high share of old people, the population is split in their vote equally between the Labour Party (column 2) and the Conservative Party (column 3) relative to the 2010 and 2015 elections.
What do we learn from this?
First of all, the results here present some good news for democracy in the UK overall. Despite the unfairness of the First-Past-The-Post electoral system, turnout seems to have increased in the past 7 years. The 2017 election saw significant increases in turnout among the young, which had previously voluntarily not participated in the electoral process. This decreased participation in previous years had resulted in political outcomes that naturally favour older cohorts, fuelling the already dramatic increase in inequality across the different generations which threatens the UK’s social cohesion. While many economists may agree that Labour’s campaign promises could amount to economic suicide, the party at least attempted to address — through its program — the UK’s structural social problems that my work suggests lie at the heart of the Brexit vote.
The results suggest that the major reshuffles in turnout were predominantly due to the (soon to be) grey voters not turning up to vote in 2017 relative to younger voters. The Labour party was the big winner, catching almost a significant share of the increase among young voters. However, relative to the age groups between 30 and 60, places with an older resident population saw their vote split between the Conservatives and Labour, possibly due to the Conservatives’ manifesto, which suggested further benefits cuts that mainly impacted the older population.
Note: this was first published on the author’s personal blog.
Thiemo Fetzer is Assistant Professor in Economics in the Economics Department at University of Warwick.
This analysis assumes a selfishness and lack of community spirit among ‘older’ voters that I think is very unfair. I live in a very ‘marginal’ constituency that, at this election, increased overall turnout and translated a 600-ish Conservative majority into a 9000+ Labour win. The sitting Conservative MP was anti-fox-hunting,pro-EU and had campaigned for local priorities, so it’s unlikely to have been his personal record that explained the result. I was in the 45-60 age group in 2011 (and have now tipped into the 60+). I have friends in the same constituency and age group. We have children in the 15-30 and 30-45 age groups and, in general, are not likely to vote in a way that we think unfair to them any more than we would expect them to vote to punish our age group. This is a new, and very unpleasant, way in which demographics are being used to invent a poisonous narrative of division between the generations.
The manifestos of both major parties were disappointing and introduced personal hobby horses from the respective leaders; grammar schools and fox-hunting on the one side and union powers and renationalisation on the other, all of which were directed at small sections of core party voters and were little more than an irritation to others. Neither party’s economic and social promises were appealing – Labour’s because they appeared unrealistic; the Tories’ because their promise to the vast majority was more, and harsher cuts, with promised tax cuts for companies and the rich. Then there was the U-turn on social care. I actually thought the proposed policy sensible and fair. £100,000 protection for everyone is, I’d have thought, fairer than swallowing almost the entire estate of poorer people while protecting the vast majority of the estates of the rich? Unlike France, the UK doesn’t demand that a deceased person’s estate must pass to spouses and descendants. I could leave my entire wealth to Battersea Dogs’ Home, or to a casino! I see no reason why the tax-payer should pay for my living expenses in a care home or my social care in my own home, so that I can preserve my estate. Others certainly disagreed with me. However, by then performing her U-turn on the policy (despite Mrs May’s insistence that there had been ‘no change’, it clearly was a U-turn) she managed to upset everyone instead of just one set or the other!
The deciding factor, for me, was the question posed by Mrs May, ‘who do you trust to negotiate Brexit: me or Jeremy Corbyn?’
After a few weeks’ exposure to their performance under pressure, it became clear Mrs May had neither the courage of her convictions nor the ability to think on her feet in response to unpleasant public reactions, while TV coverage of Mr Corbyn’s speeches and interviewers revealed a generous and humorous politician who could deal graciously with hostile questions. My conclusion, in the end, was not the one Mrs May wanted it to be.