James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
A dangerous political mood is developing in British politics that is hostile to older voters. It’s becoming a strong and visible strain on the left, but it’s gradually tainting centre right analysis too – particularly where housing policy is discussed. The Conservatives must stamp this out; it’s wrong materially, but along this path lies political suicide.
Brexit has brought this hostility into sharp focus, as older voters are blamed by many for pulling Britain out, but this hostility would have likely developed anyway. Not only are older voters considered insufficiently positive towards multiculturalism and the benefits of immigration, they’re essentially accused of being the most dug-in of vested interests. Having enjoyed the fruits of an expansive welfare state, health system and plentiful cheap housing, they’re said to be effectively preventing the young from enjoying those same benefits.
It’s an easy case to make and holds simple power. Perhaps the most senior Conservative politician to develop this case was Sajid Javid. Speaking on housing before the Budget, he said of younger voters: “They want simple fairness, moral justice, the opportunity to play by the same rules enjoyed by those who came before them.” His words were subtle but the reading of them was surely inevitable. The Sun summarised his comments: “Sajid Javid lashes out at babyboomer home owners who deny housing crisis.”
Explaining the political danger of such an approach should be obvious. Irritate older voters and the Conservatives won’t win any majorities. The fact is the vast majority of older voters turn out every single time at elections, while many young people don’t vote at all. According to YouGov, only 57 per cent of 18-19 year olds voted in the 2017 election, compared to 84 per cent of those aged 70 and over. Alienating a group of voters – who, by the way, vote Conservative in massive numbers – is ridiculous. Furthermore, doing so when most older voters back specific Conservative policies enthusiastically is particularly wrong-headed for Conservatives.
But such attacks are also wrong on their own terms. There’s no denying younger voters face a housing market that’s unacceptably challenging. And there’s also no denying that the job market in Britain has been challenging for a decade – with wage growth non-existent for many and starting salaries stagnant. But the idea that those baby boomers now entering old age enjoyed an easy life is completely wrong.
Baby boomers lived through very turbulent times: a series of recessions from the 1970s, plus de-industrialisation, trade union militancy and mass unemployment. They also suffered occasional massive hikes in interest rates and house price crashes that plunged many into the horror of negative equity. The Labour Party secured traction in the 1990s with a promise to end “boom and bust” for a reason – because this was the economic cycle that baby boomers had come to experience as normal.
It’s also patronising to suggest that older voters are essentially intolerant and narrow-minded. There’s no denying that immigrants arriving in Britain in the post-war period suffered hardships, as many continue to now. But the baby boomers were the liberal-minded voters that ultimately helped forge a society that welcomed huge numbers of new arrivals peacefully. They also paved the way for much greater opportunities for women in the workplace and indeed to reforms in attitudes towards social changes like gay rights – progress that’s particularly close to the hearts of the youngest voters. This generation can hardly be said to have Victorian values.
The media has an endless fascination with the young and social media appears to be owned by the young. But older voters don’t deserve the flak they take and they’ll be beyond angry if Conservative politicians start suggesting they had it easy and are stopping their children and grandchildren enjoying comfortable lives. They’ll unquestionably take political revenge on those that dish it out. The Conservatives must embrace the old, even as they seek to offer new opportunities to the youngest voters.