Labour’s grey vote crisis – where is the strategy for winning support from older people?

older man

In the instant analysis of the 2015 election so far there has been silence on one glaring strategic challenge, that unanswered represents a glass ceiling on Labour’s ambitions of ever again winning a parliamentary majority. How does it close the massive advantage the Conservative party now enjoys with older voters?

In 2005 Labour’s vote share was broadly even across all age groups. It won 38% of the vote with the youngest age groups and 35% with those aged 65+. This pattern was repeated in 2010 with Labour winning 31% with both the very oldest and youngest age groups. In 2015, for the first time, the party’s support was noticeably lower amongst older voters.

But the alarm bells that should have been ringing a long time ago come from the gap in the grey vote share between Labour and the Tories. A Tory lead of 6% in 2005, became a 13% lead in 2010. The picture of what happened on May 7 is only just emerging, but Survation’s first post-election poll tries various updated weightings to factor in the 2015 result, all of these have the gap now at over a breath-taking 20%. Better data will be produced in the coming months, but I am confident that we have seen Labour’s lead with older voters in the 1997 landslide, turn to a moderate but significant Tory lead by 2005, which has now become a huge advantage that lay the foundations of their return to majority rule.

However, despite the compelling logic that the grey vote must be a strategic priority, driven by demographic change that will see by 2025 at least 50% of all votes cast in at least 50% of constituencies by people aged 50 and over, I saw no evidence that Labour had reflected, internalised and acted on this.

And yet Labour had its strong reputation on the NHS, sound policies in areas such as energy prices and on time to care for those who receive support at home, it had good story to tell about in achievements in office, In 1997 pensioners were much more likely to be living in poverty than people of working age, by 2010 this gap had nearly been closed. But somehow, ageing issues barely registered in its six week campaign, in stark comparison to Cameron’s ‘year of the grey vote’ culminating in Osborne’s grey vote budget. We should also note that the Liberal Democrat seats in the south and south west that fell like dominoes to the Tories had larger than average numbers of older voters.

Labour desperately needs a grey vote strategy. Here are some early thoughts on rebuilding:

Understand what it means to be ‘old’ and ‘retired’ is being transformed – voters now retiring helped forge the consumer society, many are profoundly influenced by their experience of the social revolutions in the 60s and 70s. Older voters now hold much higher expectations of public services and high ambitions in relation to realising personal goals in later life, which leads us to…

Labour must support aspiration for older people – a perception that Labour failed to appeal to aspirational voters is already up and running as a theme. This debate is equally valid here. We all hold aspirations that retirement might be a time to realise goals of personal fulfilment, a time to tick off some of those items on the bucket list. A grey vote strategy needs to merge the mission to eradicate poverty and social isolation with aspirations that retirement might actually be a positive, enjoyable experience.

Ageing issues are family issues – A popular truism in electoral politics is that owning the future is the road to success. For our ageing society the near future for a great number of voters is their own later life. Older voters are of course worried about their own quality of life, but also the educational, employment and housing prospects of their own children. Voters in the 40s are often anxious and need to support both their children and parents. Grandparents provide a significant amount of child care support for working age families. Put this together, and we see that any aspirational narrative thread might locate on families and generations supporting each other across different life stages. Not least because…

Target older voters but use age neutral messages and language – there is evidence to suggest that campaigns that only appeal to voters on the basis of their age fail. Voters resist any message that states they should support this party, because you are old. Generations within families and across society wish to mutually support each other, a party that can credibly show it understands and facilitate this will potentially reap its electoral reward.

I have always been disappointed by what I detect as an under-current within some parts of the liberal left, an automatic cultural aversion to the ‘old’. I think this comes from what is almost a fetish for some in lionising the young or new generations as the only true vanguards of progressive social change. Some even give the impression that they resent the idea of rising living standards for the old, particularly media liberals who devote their energies to artificially demonising older generations and proclaiming inter-generational war. Undoubtedly many young people suffered from coalition policies, but there is no reasonable logic which says the centre-left must respond by finding ways of punishing another vulnerable section of society – the old. Labour needs to shun these voices, and ensure it very clearly communicates that it is comfortable with, indeed enthusiastically identifies with, the majority of communities and constituencies where in the near-future the median voter is aged over 50.

The road back to power requires that Labour understands how it can meet the changing needs – and aspirations – of our ageing electorate. So far, it has allowed its main competitor to gain a decisive electoral advantage.

In the 90s some senior figures in the party allowed the impression to be given that older voters were not a priority because they were not vote switchers. Recent history has destroyed that myth, the grey vote is increasingly volatile, and because of its size a 3-4% swing from the oldest voters would need landslide type swings from younger voters to neutralise. The wise strategy is not be in this kind of position in the first place. The Labour Party needs to begin now to plan to be the electoral beneficiaries of an ageing electorate now exponentially growing year on year as the boomers retire. It needs to be a core theme of the leadership contest.

Scott Davidson is a former campaign manager at AGE UK and now researches and lectures on communication strategies as well as the politics of ageing at the University of Leicester.

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