The outcome of the 2017 election is being interpreted along the lines of young vs old, each voting for their own interests. But focussing on the demographics and second-guessing their underlying opinions prevents us from focusing on the expression of those opinions directly – on the political programmes that people have chosen to endorse in this election, writes Jonathan White.
The latest conventional wisdom about the 2017 General Election is that Labour’s surge was powered by the young. The “youth vote has come out in strength and lashed out pretty aggressively”, David Cameron’s former director of communications Andy Coulson is reported to have said. The explosive tectonics of the election have been described as a ‘youthquake’.
There is a respectable version of this argument, centred on the observation that Labour was far more enthusiastically endorsed than the Conservatives amongst young voters. In the 18-24 age range, the gap between the parties was 48%, if we go by the Ashcroft polls. Moreover, there are some larger structural trends this may express, including the weaker hold of the tabloid press amongst those who get most of their news through social media. That young voters may be the harbinger of something new is an idea that has some merits.
But the youthquake thesis is in many ways misleading. Support for Labour ran through the generations, outweighing that for the Tories by 20% also in the 35-44 age range. If elections have to be submitted this way to the accountant’s gaze, it needs emphasis that the bulk of the Labour vote came from those more middle-aged than young.
The thesis is misleading also because it assumes those young voters who supported Labour did so because they are young, their politics being the expression of their demographic status. There seem to be two main variants on this view when it is spelt out. One sees the young as naïve and idealistic. They want to change the world, and so fall into line behind the party of ‘hope’. Belonging more to the present and future than the past, their relation to history is weak, and so they fail to grasp the historical parallels that might give them pause for thought. Another view paints them as the opposite of idealistic – as an interest group looking to cut themselves the best deal. In this reading, it was the Labour promise to abolish fees for higher education that got them off the sofa. Stereotypes about ‘students’ underpin both views – students as dreamers, and students as consumers.
Brexit provides another background theme here. The Labour vote was built on the back of young people being ‘furious with Brexit’, say some. Here the Corbyn surge is reinterpreted as the backwash of clashes about something else – anger at a referendum outcome imposed on them by older, more Eurosceptic voters.
What all these ‘youthquake’ interpretations do is treat political conflicts as a proxy for social ones. What the outcome of the election is really about, they say, is something other than the relative merits of the two visions of society produced by Labour and the Conservatives. It was really about young vs old – youthful naivety vs mature scepticism, or the interests of the young vs the old. ‘Mr Corbyn positioned himself as the young person’s candidate’, it is said. (There is a symmetry of course between the idea that Labour bought the youth vote and the idea the Tories lost the support of their ‘natural supporters’ amongst the elderly with the prospect of a ‘dementia tax’.) Opinion is the after-effect of social structure.
Politics as a grand bargain between the generations – such tropes have been a recurrent feature of western politics in recent years. Often they have been part of an effort to present the welfare state as unsustainable. On the model of generational accounting, different age-groups have different interests: the goal for public policy is to balance them. Typically it is pensioners who have been seen as the wealth-suckers – hence the need to cut back on their entitlements. But the young are observed to have their preoccupations too, and when fighting for free education are said to be fighting for themselves. That anyone with a family may be implicated in all these issues personally, and that individuals in any case can have firm views about policies that don’t affect them, are obvious objections to this perspective.
In its more politically-motivated forms, the youthquake thesis can be read as a move to cast Labour as a sectional movement, associated with the interests of a particular demographic. It is a way of localising its appeal, externalising it from ‘public opinion’ as a whole and separating it from the interests of the wider society. Having counted in generational terms, one is then free also to discount. It is another way of ‘othering’ Corbyn and the ideas he stands for, like moves frequently seen during the campaign itself. In its less politicised forms, the youthquake thesis is a way of making sense of a surprise. The Labour surge caught many political scientists off their guard. By recounting the campaign as the story of a social group, opinion is put back in its sociological box. Politics becomes a little more predictable once more, and the main lesson to be learned is simplified: one just has to pay a bit more attention to the right demographic.
But second-guessing the motives of voters is rarely a charitable move, and there is no obvious need to make it. Rather than look for the underlying grid that shapes opinion, why not focus on the opinions themselves – on the political programmes that young people, and many others, have chosen to endorse in this election?
Jonathan White is Professor of Politics at the LSE. His publications include The Meaning of Partisanship (with Lea Ypi; OUP 2016) and ‘Thinking Generations’ (British Journal of Sociology, 2013).