The age time bomb around Brexit

In the referendum the highest level of support for remaining in the EU was among young voters. Ignoring them sets the UK up for serious difficulties in the future.

In December 2018 I blogged a demographic analysis of the 2016 referendum result. The conclusion was that the deaths of older, predominantly Brexit-supporting voters leaving the electoral register, and predominantly Remain-supporting young people passing their 18th birthdays meant that the majority for leaving the EU would be gone by the end of 2019.

On its own, this implies that the legitimacy of the referendum result has already gone, and that the things will move further away from support for Brexit as time passes. This is not contradicted by the two General Elections which have taken place since then — in 2017 both Conservatives and Labour had manifesto commitments to implement the result of the referendum, and many voted Labour to oppose what the Tories were doing. In 2019 Labour’s position was so muddled that it’s hard to read the Labour vote in terms of Brexit. Their promise of negotiating a new deal in three months was impossibly-tight, and the idea of three months after that for a further referendum flies in the face of the Electoral Commission’s advice that a year should be allowed for a referendum, so this reads more like hubris leading them to think they could get a “better Brexit” than a meaningful pathway to a credible referendum. I’ve argued elsewhere that the support Tory majority is more of an anti-mandate for Labour, so this is also not a ringing endorsement of their Brexit policy.

Reactions from Leave supporters

At various times since then I have posted links to that blog post in twitter discussions, responding to comments from Leave supporters which imply that that the 2016 result cannot be re-visited. What’s fascinated me about reactions to this is the number of strident comments about people becoming more Eurosceptic as they age. There have been claims that people “see through” the EU as they grow older. The snag is that this claim is made with no supporting evidence — the implication is that older voters are assuming that younger ones don’t understand.

Short tweets are not the place for detailed discussions, but my own response to that view that people become more Eurosceptic as they age is that there isn’t evidence of people switching from Remain to Leave, which would support the idea of people becoming more Eurosceptic over time, so the demographic analysis stands. An equally-credible reading of the age profile is that younger voters have grown up with the EU, and are not viewing the time before we joined the EU with the same nostalgia as (some) older people. A Survation poll in May–August 2018 shows an even higher level of support for EU membership among voters than my modelling from the 2016 result.

But what this does imply is a dismissal of the views of younger voters. At the best of times that would be problematic, but it stores up problems as Brexit begins to bite.

2019 General Election

The 2019 General Election also showed a sharp polarisation by age, with just 21% of people under 24 voting Conservative, and that proportion rising with age to reach 67% among the over-70s.

My own reading of Labour’s policies in the 2019 General Election was that the degree of borrowing was reckless, and the amount of nationalisation threatened a return to the inefficiency of the 1970s. But the idealism spoke to younger voters. It rides on the back of huge and justified frustrations around house prices, and the painful reality that it is no longer the case that young people can expect to be wealthier than their parents were.

I can make sense of the support for Labour as people losing track of the downsides of these policies, and having a genuine desire for things to be different (which also echoes people I’ve spoken with who voted Leave because they thought the system so broken that change was needed).

Hardly out of sight here is the painful reality that it is the least wealthy who have most to lose from Brexit, while many of the loudest proponents of Brexit are people whose wealth means they will not need to worry, whatever happens (prompting the suggestion that Brexit makes sense as an attack by the wealthy on everyone else).

Young people losing out

Personally, I hope that Labour find a way to repeat the shift that Tony Blair achieved, moving themselves away from the Left wing extreme, so that they become electable. But the alienation of young people is palpable and will increase. Faced with the Tories seeming to attack the courts, to re-draw constituency boundaries in a way that helps them stay in power, and claiming to implement “the will of the people” which younger voters will hear as “the will of the older people”, there is bound to be huge frustration. At its worst, this risks keeping Labour in an unelectable position, so that they become the party of protest rather than a credible government-in-waiting. The longer that keeps Labour out of power, the greater the frustration will become. That is a dangerous, viscous circle.

The British system relies on the opposition being a government-in-waiting. If it becomes no more than a magnet for frustration, then the opposition undermines stability rather than enabling change.

If Labour can’t find a way out of this extreme, it may be that Liberal Democrats take their place, but with just 11 MPs, it will be even harder for Liberal Democrats to be a government-in-waiting between now and the next General Election.

Trends in support for EU membership

In fact, people have changed their minds — support for Remaining in the EU has been polling ahead of support for Brexit for most of the time since the referendum. Some may indeed have voted Conservative I the hope that this would just end the agonising over Brexit, but the implication is that people are now having something visited on them that doesn’t enjoy majority support.

“Give us what we voted for”

The (predominantly) older voters demanding that Brexit happen seem to have moved their position, from claiming reasons for Brexit (which may or may not be credible) to “give us what we voted for”. That’s a particularly brutal position. Younger voters, facing real losses through Brexit, could have forbearance if there were good reasons for thinking older Leave voters had voted with good reasons, even if these turn out to be wrong. It’s much harsher when it becomes a naked “give us what we voted for” and, by extension “we don’t care about the consequences” — especially when those fall most heavily on people seeking to build careers and buy homes.

Tories hanging onto power

There’s talk of Tory ministers boycotting the Today programme and it’s scrutiny. There have been dark mutterings about the BBC license fee, that the power of the courts to challenge the government should be curbed and that judges are exceeding their authority. There are also suggestions that the proposed changes to constituency boundaries will have the “accidental” consequence of favouring the Tories. Those things are bound to increase the alienation of younger voters.

Frustration and alienation as people suffer economically from Brexit is not a good combination. Anger at the feeling that older voters have stolen the future of the young will compound this.

A difficult way forward

The problem for the next few years is how to ensure adequate critique of the government and adequate space for opposition to be voiced, so that it can turn into a voice for change rather than alienation, violence or depression. We face a grim prospect if we have young people suffering (and being ignored) as older voters trade on a nostalgia for a world that is long gone (if it ever existed).

2 thoughts on “The age time bomb around Brexit”

  1. Will some one please analyse how those of us who were born before 1945 voted. I am very fed up of being included with the over 65 group.
    We voted for remain for peace!! and often switched from Conservative to LibDem!

    1. Hi Shirley,

      Very many apologies — in the original post from last year I quoted the figure of 36% of people over 65 voting Remain, which is why it has been a gradual change. It’s harder to produce numbers, but I’ve spoken with a number of people among those with memories of the Second World War who share my sense that this is very much a peace project and are horrified by Brexit. Personally, I think things are never static — countries are either heading towards war or away from it, and the EU commitment to “Ever closer union” makes total sense as a firm choice to set our faces away from war. It sends a shudder down my spine to hear people wanting to go against that, especially when it’s people who didn’t live through the horrors of war.

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