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The Grey Vote Will Decide UK’s December Election – OpEd

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By Chandrahas Choudhury*

In three weeks, the UK will hold its third general election in five years — the fallout of the chaos and division in that country over the Brexit referendum, and of a political logjam over how, and indeed whether, to deliver the result it threw up.

Few British citizens wanted an election two weeks before Christmas (this is the UK’s first December election in nearly a century). But now that it is here, the question is whether voter turnout will be robust. From the viewpoint of those of us in Asia and the Middle East, there is a particularly interesting issue to contemplate — whether the “grey vote” in the UK will once again be decisive.

For the most of the 20th century, British electoral politics was fought on the axis of class. The middle and upper classes typically voted for the Conservatives, and the working class for Labour. But one of the most interesting aspects of democracy is the way in which it correlates to demography: The changing structure and dynamics of human populations.

Over the last two decades, age rather than class has become the most reliable predictor of political allegiance in the UK. And the question of age — the natural breakup of a society into three or four generations — has itself taken on a deeply political dimension.

Post-poll surveys of the 2017 election showed that a majority of voters over 65 voted for the Conservatives, and a majority of voters under 35 for Labour. The phenomenon was most clearly visible at the extremes. Among first-time voters, Labour enjoyed a 47 percent lead over the Conservatives. But among those over 70, the Conservatives had a lead of 50 percent.

In Asia, such a hold over a country’s youth would mean a landslide victory for a party like Labour, and its leader Jeremy Corbyn would already be polishing his victory speech. Yet three weeks before the election, opinion polls show that the Conservatives hold an 11-point edge over Labour. How can that be?

The answer is that the democracies of the developing world are youthful not just in an institutional sense but also in a demographic one, while the democracies of Europe are both old and, in terms of the structure of their populations, greying.

As a result of the revolutions in material life, health care and technology in the 20th century, the denizens of the UK and continental Europe became the longest-living in the world. Many of the young people I went to university with in England had members of three generations alive above them.

Consider the political implications of this fact. The median age of the UK — the age at which a person finds the rest of the population divided into two equal halves, one older than him or her, the other younger — is 40. In contrast, the median age of India is 27, and that of Saudi Arabia 30.

Is the UK’s distinctive age map, with half of its population between 40 and 100 (centenarians are the fastest-growing segment in percentage terms), a problem? It is if you agree that elections are a society’s way of determining its future. Young people are the ones with the most stake in the future, and the most future ahead of them.

A society in which the political center is occupied by those aged 40-70 is more likely to back the status quo — to be politically conservative — than to seek revolutionary changes in taxation, public services or education of the sort Corbyn and Labour are proposing (free university tuition, the renationalization of railways and water, and free broadband for all).

But in the UK, the political divide between old and young is also exacerbated by another phenomenon: That of political participation also showing a divide based on age. Numerous studies of political participation show that once you start voting in elections, you usually never miss a chance to cast your vote thereafter.

The technical term for this is path dependency: People’s tendency to act in a certain way because of actions they have taken in the past. In the UK, voter turnout among those aged 50 and over averages in the mid-70s. That is, voters who are more likely to vote Conservative are also more likely to actually vote.

In contrast, this century the youth turnout has never been more than the high 50s, partly due to their disillusionment about politics in an aging society (younger voters turned out in great numbers for the Brexit referendum, mainly because it was centered around an issue rather than a choice of political party). Perhaps the most common non-partisan message on British Twitter this last month has been citizens, in particular academics, exhorting young people to register and vote.

All this explains why, although Labour is the clear favorite among people under 40 in the UK, come Dec. 13 the Conservatives are most likely to take the reins of power again. We know from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former hairstylist that he dyes his hair. Likely, it is for reasons of vanity. But perhaps it is because he knows that in a society where older people usually vote Conservative, and one in six people is above 65 years old, he has the grey vote in his pocket already.

  • Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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