Labour and older voters: talkin’ ‘bout my generation

By David Osland

Of course I voted Labour in 2019. Six months later I pocketed my free Oyster Card, after hitting the only age cohort that mostly didn’t.

The ‘older voter’ demographic of sixty-somethings upwards is widely touted as the biggest obstacle to ever getting a Labour prime minister again.

Some psephologists even argue age represents a bigger determinant of voting behaviour than class. While ‘determinant’ is the wrong word here, there’s no point disputing hard facts.

Fewer than one in five of those aged 65 or more backed Labour two years ago, while the Tories took three times that number.

This, we are told, is a key explanation for the collapse of the Red Wall, the former industrial towns of the north, in which the mass exodus of younger people in search of jobs has tilted the age profile towards pensioners.

Not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation, as Tory Roger Daltrey used to stutter while Labour-voting Pete Townshend smashed various iconic guitars into his Vox AC30. Just talkin’ ‘bout my generation.

The question such statistics throw up is how Labour can, if not secure majority support in this layer, then at least pick up enough older voters to neutralise the Conservatives’ advantage.

It could start by not assuming we are one undifferentiated phalanx of senescent reactionary flag-waving dodderers, essentially immune to appeals for social justice.

People are said to move right as they get older, as evidenced by opposition to immigration and support for Brexit. But in my experience, full-scale left-to-right ideological conversions are rare.

Rather more pervasive, at least among my friends and workmates, has been cynicism, not least in beliefs about what Labour governments might be able to achieve in office.

There is nothing inherently right wing about the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings of the Thatcher era, in which big Tory majorities were achieved on the back of minority electoral support.

We are still the same people that marched for nuclear disarmament, collected money for striking miners, spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and refused to pay the poll tax.

All those gratuitous Union Jacks and endless contrived photo opportunities of Keir Starmer nursing a pint of real ale in the local spit and sawdust boozer have been expressly designed to target wrinklies.

But the glaring insincerity of such patronising bullshit has seen few won over. Those of us that want that package are buying it elsewhere.

Don’t take my word on that: the double-digit gap in the opinion polls puts the case beyond doubt.

Shocking as this will seem to some, old ’uns are not impervious to reasoned argument for socialist policies, of the type Labour was pushing when it enjoyed substantial poll leads under that other leader whose name I forget right now. Sorry, senior moment, guys.

Contrary to the ‘they all own their own houses and live off fat final salary pensions’ stereotype, pensioner poverty remains widespread. Tens of thousands die of hypothermia each winter.

For many, the pep-pill fuelled rock & roll bravado of hoping to die before they get old has been replaced with hoping to get old before they die.

Even better-off boomers have no wish to see their kids and grandkids landed with £50k student debt, know they need the NHS there for them if their health deteriorates, and want a guarantee of good social care if that time comes.

In other words, they have every interest in seeing the better society that everybody else has an interest in seeing, and Labour needs to speak to those instincts before the wipeout in the north is complete.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. Source: The Who Philadelphia Oct. 26, 2008. Author: Kubacheck, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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