By Keir Milburn
As the shock of the 2019 general election fades the argument over its wider meaning has begun. While Brexit was the issue that most determined the result, it seems likely that it will lose salience now the UK is certain to leave the EU. It makes sense then to step back from the specifics of the campaign and think about the wider political and demographic trends that the election fits into. There are two prime candidates.
The first is the dramatic geographical shift in political support. That discussion is dominated by the collapse of Labour’s support in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ areas. While we should treat the phrase ‘Red Wall’ with scepticism (it was more or less invented at this election in order to be knocked down), it does link to long term demographic changes. Those Northern towns once dominated by a single employer, perhaps in mining or manufacturing, and so conducive to labour organising and therefore Labour voting, have, over the last thirty years, been hollowed out and changed beyond recognition. But the long-term decline of the Labour vote in these areas doesn’t indicate the loss of the working class, it is rather a geographical effect of a much larger, long-term recomposition of class. The so-called ‘Red Wall’ is part of a wider geographical trend in politics in which Labour has come to dominate the vote in cities and larger towns while the Conservative vote has been concentrated into smaller towns and villages. This is true both in the devastated small towns of the North and the wealthier villages of the Home Counties. How can we explain this?
The key lies with the second stark political division of the election: the huge political generation gap. In the election, the young massively favoured Labour, who led the Conservatives by 33 percentage points among the under 30s, while the old flocked to the Conservatives, who beat Labour by 44 points among the over 60s. This was a near repeat of the age divide seen in the 2017 election where the generation gap between the youngest and oldest reached a huge 97 percentage points. This was new and historically unprecedented: in the 2010 election that generation gap had been just 15 points. Interestingly, this pattern is not restricted to the UK. It’s followed most obviously in the US but is also detectable in many other developed countries.
These two political shifts, geographic and age, might point to a complicated picture but in fact, the former is primarily explained by the latter. Over the last thirty years there has been an exodus of young people away from villages and small towns into larger towns and cities. Why? Quite simply, because that’s where the jobs and opportunities are. In turn, the smaller towns have aged dramatically, with huge populations of retired people relocating there. It’s a self-reinforcing dynamic as age segregation makes small towns less attractive to the young. The conclusion is obvious: the key to understanding the 2019 election lays, beyond all other things, in understanding the political generation gap.
Even though this age divide appeared just three years ago, its roots go back to the 1980s, a period of defeat for the Left. In fact, the ‘Baby Boomers’, those born between 1946 and 1965, are best understood as a defeated generation. Their movement to the Right is an effect of that defeat. They failed to get the world they wanted when they were young and now no longer believe positive change is possible. Not coincidentally the ‘Red Wall’ towns were the arena for a key moment in that defeat, when the once powerful Miners Union were smashed during the strike of 1984-5. This was a key moment in the wider defeat of the unions and we are still living with the consequences. Wages have (adjusted for inflation) stagnated ever since. But after the application of the stick, with the near military defeat of the miners, came the carrot of increased individual wealth. This wasn’t achieved through raised wages, which would have required organised labour, but through rising house prices. The sell-off of council housing, at an average discount of between 30-50% of market value, represents a huge transfer of public wealth into private hands. The public resources built up by one generation were ransacked to buy off the next generation, the defeated boomers, but that was always a one-time trick. The trouble with neoliberalism is that it eventually runs out of public goods to loot.
The incredible rise in house prices became supercharged through the 90s and early 2000s by the deregulation of the finance market and the financialisation of pensions. It was this economic set up that hit the rocks with the financial crisis of 2008. The material interests of the over 60s have gradually become aligned with the performance of the financial and real estate sectors. This helps explain the unanimity across the country of the shift to the Right among the home-owning elderly. Even a house in a depressed area like Grimsby has increased in value an average of 200% since 1995. No wonder they are voting for more of the same. The young, on the other hand, were gradually priced out of this bonanza and since 2008 the door has been slammed shut. Home ownership rates among the under 40s have fallen through the floor. The material interests of the young are pinned to the level of wages and social spending going up, but every government policy since 2008 has pointed the other way. The financial and real estate sectors have been propped up by quantitative easing and low interest rates while austerity has proven catastrophic for the young.
It is this division of material interests, along with a division in what seems socially and politically possible, that lies behind our great political generational divide. The Left has become hegemonic among the urban young (and, indeed, Labour won the election among the working age population), but the propertied pensioners, in alliance with financial oligarchs, defeated them. To rebuild, the Left must start from where they are strong and deepen their hegemony over Generation Left and the cities – but we must then move out from there to break the Right’s hold on small towns. The wealthier propertied pensioners will be the hardest to reach and some ‘Red Wall’ towns, deserts of the old, aren’t the best place to start. Many areas, however, are more mixed, and a program of deep organising there has every chance of winning them back to the Left. Polling shows that the political views of the young in the villages and small towns are closer to the young in the cities than the older people surrounding them. It is they who can provide the initial base for such organising alongside those, usually older women, who are already running social solidarity and food bank type projects. The movement built up around Corbyn now needs to shift its focus away from parliament towards helping the workers get organised in the service sector jobs that dominate small towns, towards aiding the formation of community and renters’ unions, and towards growing projects of social solidarity. This is the way we can re-establish the idea that politics can change things for the better. It is the only way to end the domination of the country by the long defeat of the ‘Boomers’.
Keir Milburn is author of the book Generation Left (Polity, 2019).
Illustration by Clifford Harper.
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