Of the many remarkable features of last Thursday’s British election result, perhaps the most momentous was the supplanting of class-based voting patterns by a new cleavage between the old and the young.
According to an analysis by the Financial Times, a voting gap between the classes that stood at 72% in 1987 (a 40% lead in the Conservatives’ favour among the middle class, and a 32% lead to Labour among the working class) has now been reduced to just 15%.
Meanwhile, Labour’s advantage among those aged 18 to 24 went from the low 20s in 2015 to 50%, while those aged 65 and over went in the opposite direction, as the Conservative lead inflated from the high teens to the low 30s.
This is a confounding development for scholars of electoral behaviour, who long believed that most voters acquired life-long political loyalties at the parent’s knee.
Its impact at last week’s election could be mapped geographically as well as socially, with Labour struggling in the declining industrial areas of the north while pulling off a number of shock victories in and around London.
Most notable among the latter were Canterbury, where university students delivered Labour its first-ever win in a seat that has existed since the Middle Ages, and the plush inner-London environs of Kensington, for which an Australian equivalent would be Malcolm Turnbull losing Wentworth.
As our own Labor Party plods along under the determinedly centrist leadership of Bill Shorten, many will be asking if it would be possible for something similar to happen here.
Certainly the litany of grievances accumulated by young voters in Britain — which Owen Jones of The Guardian itemised as “trebling of tuition fees, the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance, the scrapping of youth services across the country, a housing crisis that disproportionately affects them, the lack of secure jobs, a 10% fall in wages” — sound more than familiar to Australian ears.
Some insight into the state of the youth vote in both countries is offered by the chart below, which uses enrolment, population and polling data, together with a small amount of guesswork, to approximate how the 18-to-24 age bracket did and didn’t vote in the last two British elections, together with our own federal election last year.
Importantly, “non-voters” is taken to encompass all those eligible to vote and not merely those on the electoral roll, who provide the basis for the published turnout figures.
In comparing the two countries, a neat symmetry is evident between the Australian results and those from the UK in 2015, with Labor, the Coalition and the combined minor parties coming in at about double the result for their British equivalents (with the important distinction that the Australian minor party vote was dominated by the Greens, whose ability to win Senate seats gives them a traction Britain’s Green Party can only dream of).
From this evidence, it might have been inferred that what’s hidden inside the chart’s grey areas is simply a mirror image of the coloured parts.
However, Jeremy Corbyn’s accomplishments last week reinforce the impression given by Bernie Sanders in the United States that the voting behaviour of the disengaged youth is heavily contingent upon what’s on offer.
If our own Millennials are anything like Britain’s, it would seem many are choosing sides at elections without much enthusiasm, and that the gap in Labor’s favour could widen fairly substantially if it gave young voters something to get excited about.
Nonetheless, the crude reality is that Australian Labor can take the youth vote for granted to an extent that British Labour cannot, thanks to compulsory voting, which makes the turnout surge seen in Britain impossible to replicate, and preferential voting, which diminishes the imperative to make an active pitch to the left.
By contrast, Labor has everything to fear from the loss of support among the old that ensured Jeremy Corbyn was only able to enjoy a moral victory, rather than a real one.