From education to employment


Councillor Stephen Lambert, Executive Director, Education4Democracy CIC
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For decades it has been believed that social class was the key determinant behind the outcome of a general election. 

On December 12, with a turn-out of 67%, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party got 44% of the popular vote with Labour getting 32%. Sociologically, the Conservative Part has managed to get support of a huge section of the professional and white-collar middle classes with Labour getting the support of the blue-collar working class.

Class dealignment finally came of age last month. For the political scientist Tim Bale, age has overtaken class, to become the key cleavage in UK politics.

Labour, the party of working people and their families with an emphasis on wealth redistribution from the well-to-do to those on modest incomes, consolidated support in seats with large concentrations of middle-class professionals and students.

The Tories, the party of big business and ‘Middle-England’ made massive gains in the poorest seats. One of the richest constituencies, Canterbury, stayed Labour with an increased majority while the former working-class mining seat of Bishop Auckland in County Durham went Conservative on a staggering 12 per cent swing.

Age apartheid

Age apartheid, with a generational divide in voting habits and political attitudes, has become a feature of post -Brexit Britain. For Stephen Burke, director of the think tank, United for All Ages, ”Britain is increasingly divided by age and generation.” The UK has an ageing populace. In 2019 the over-65s numbered 12 million exceeding the number of those under 18.

There’s a dominant view that Britain’s elderly carry significant political weight: the so- called ‘grey power’. It’s also the case that the older a person gets, the more likely they are to vote. Turn-out amongst the over-55s was 75% in the 2019 election compared to a 46% turn-out amongst the 18 to 24-age group.

There’s a tendency for younger people under 40 to vote Labour and older people to vote Conservative. In 2019, according to elections guru, John Curtis, 56% of the 18 to 24- year group backed Labour with seven out of 10 pensioners supporting the Conservative party.

Older people more conservative

Amongst social scientists there remains a debate as to why this is. Some scholars like Frank Furedi argue that older people are more conservative with a small ‘c’ – more committed to traditional norms and values. Amongst older people there’s more support for the Conservative Party, perhaps reflecting a more restrained view on issues of personal morality, membership of the EU, immigration and sexual orientation. This may be related to a political upbringing formed by age-generational experiences during their formative years.

Others have suggested that as people get older they become more cynical about social change at home or abroad. Most have mortgages to pay off plus other costs to do with family responsibilities.

Survey evidence indicates that many are alarmed by high taxation policies to fund public services. Once their finances are more secure in their 60s they may resent having to pay more for social welfare for other age groups.

Many older working class blue-collar workers living in England and Wales’s post-industrial and coastal towns are by nature socially conservative with an emphasis on faith, flag and family. Community values and solidarity remain strong despite the consequences of de-industrialisation. Most left school at 16 with some having undergone old-style five year apprenticeships in traditional crafts and skills. Over six out ten backed ‘Leave’ in the 2016 EU referendum. In sum they want out.

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Generation rent more radical and more open to change

At the other end of the age spectrum, young adults are more radical, culturally, and more open to change and new policy ideas like liberal identity issues. As shown in the 2019 election they tended to see Labour as closer to their world view. In the last half decade economic opportunities have shrunk.

Dubbed ‘generation rent’, many find it hard to get on to the housing ladder. Their wages have also been hit hard by austerity. Housing allowances have been cut as pensioner benefits have been protected and increased year on.

Many graduates end up working in non-graduate jobs.

Labour’s manifesto promises, spearheaded by its youth wing via social media, to scrap university fees, restore maintenance grants for FE  students, a living wage of £10 an hour, more affordable homes and action to tackle climate change resonated with millions of young people.

Parliamentary seats with large student populations stuck with Labour

In university cities like Manchester, Brighton, Sheffield, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol and London Labour enjoyed political hegemony.

When it comes to voting, the generation gap has got wider than ever before. For  England’s two dominate parties the future challenges are great. 

For the Tories to win big again in 2024 they need to win over the youth vote. For Labour, despite promises to keep pensioner benefits, they need to win over the hearts and minds of middle-aged and older voters in the nations post-industrial and coastal towns in order to achieve success at the ballot box.

On a broader level, more needs to be done to challenge intergenerational inequality with far-reaching public policies to promote greater integration between older and younger citizens.

As Burke notes: ”Ending age apartheid and promoting social integration between generations can help build communities for all ages, where we’re united not divided.” In post- Brexit Britain, surely that’s an aspiration worth pursuing in 2020.

Stephen Lambert is director of Education4Democracy

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