In 20 years, British politics went from being about class to being about age

In Politics
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Historically, social class was the stark dividing line in British politics. The right-wing Conservatives were the party of the middle class and the upper crust, while left-wing Labour was the party of the working stiffs.

In 2017, things seem to have changed.

Consider the chart above, which contrasts just released data from  from surveys taken after last week’s election with historical  polling data from the 1997 election.

That was the year that charismatic young centrist Tony Blair returned Labour to government after 18 years in the political wilderness. But even in that landslide victory, it was found that much of Britain’s upper-middle-class and middle-class voters — classified as “AB” according to Britain’s traditional demographic classification system — had still backed the Conservatives.

Of those voters, a total of 41 percent were estimated to have voted for the Conservatives, compared to 31 percent who voted for Labour. In contrast, at the other end of the socio-economic scale — “DE” voters, which means they were semiskilled or unskilled manual workers or not in work — just 21 percent voted Conservative, while 59 percent voted for Labour. (This wasn’t a blip, by the way: Data from shows a similar and at times far more pronounced trend during elections before and after Blair’s victory.)

Flash forward 20 years. Analysis of last week’s 2017 vote shows this political class divide no longer appears to be a major factor — the Conservatives and Labour had a relatively even split between all social classes. But now another dividing line has opened up even further.

YouGov’s data shows Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was stronger where the younger voters were: 66 percent of 18- to 19-year-old voters backed Labour in last week’s election, while 69 percent of voters over 70 years old voted for the Theresa May-lead Conservative Party. YouGov’s data suggests that for every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting for the Conservatives increased by around nine points while the chance of them voting Labour decreased by nine points.

Ipsos MORI’s data from 1997 does show that young voters favored Blair’s Labour — perhaps unsurprising due to the left-leaning “hip Britannia” movement taking place at the time — but the divide between the ages was nowhere near as pronounced as it would be 20 years later.

There are of course some caveats to the data here: We’re looking at two different surveys conducted by two different companies two decades apart. The circumstances were very different too. As unusual as the 2017 election was — an early election which produced a widely unexpected poor result for the Conservatives — Labour’s centrist turn under Blair was also radical at the time. And in either election, there is also the risk of oversimplifying: Neither class or age will ever be the only conclusive factor in an election.

But the evidence we have so far is that something has shifted. As Ben Page, chief executive of British polling firm Ipsos MORI, put it to WorldViews last week, where Britain was once divided by class, “now we are a country divided by generations.”

And it’s a shift that appears to have happened relatively recently. suggest that class was still the major factor in British voting habits as recently as 2010. It was only in 2015’s general election and, more obviously, last year’s Brexit referendum that things began to change.

How did this happen? Right now, that’s hard to say. This year Labour certainly ran a more social media savvy campaign and made promises to cut tuition fees that would be appealing to British students. More broadly, Corbyn’s underdog status and leftist credentials could be appealing to those seeking youthful rebellion, while Conservative attempts to discredit him by pointing to his past sympathy for groups like the Irish Republican Army may also have fallen on deaf ears among young voters; many were not even alive during the worst of the Troubles.

A bigger factor still may have been Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. By and large, young voters had opposed Brexit in  and voted to remain in Europe. They had never known life outside the E.U. and enjoyed its perks, and had no fond memories of what life was like before it like some older voters do. While Labour is not promising to reverse the decision, a vote against the Conservatives could well be a way to express this frustration.

Early signs suggest a surge in youth turnout, but slightly older voters may have also made some important switches to their behavior. On Twitter, London School of Economics professor Benjamin Lauderdale — a polling expert who helped craft YouGov’s unusually accurate model for predicting the 2017 election results — 30 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds who had voted Conservative in the last election appeared to have defected to Labour. Lauderdale noted this was “mostly the remainers.”

It’s too early to say if these shifts are permanent, but even in the short term, they have the potential to cause major shifts to British politics. Outsiders should pay attention too: Leftist politicians like in the United States and  in France have tended to be supported disproportionately by young voters. If British voters can forget about their class allegiances, anything may be possible.

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