Britain’s election and the deepening generational divide

UK’s left-leaning, socially liberal youth may have lost the general election, but they will not stop demanding change.

Corbyn young supporters Reuters
Supporters wait for Jeremy Corbyn, leader of UK's opposition Labour Party, to arrive at a campaign event in Reading, May 31, 2017 [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

The United Kingdom‘s December 12 general election was a huge disappointment for younger generations, as they were once again outnumbered and outvoted. Those above the age of 65 form an increasingly large share of the electorate, and are also more likely to vote. There are now more than 12 million UK citizens above the age of 65 and less than six million between the ages of 18 and 24. And, in this past election, 80 percent of those above 65 turned out to vote, compared with about 55 percent of 18 to 30-year-olds.

According to the Lord Ashcroft Election Day Poll, more than three-quarters of 18 to 24-year-olds (and more than 70 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds) supported left-leaning, socially liberal parties: The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish National Party. However, the youth vote was divided between these “progressive” parties, while the older generations overwhelmingly supported the Conservative Party (62 percent of those above 65 voted Conservative)

The British first-past-the-post electoral system rewarded older generations for their block support for a single party and punished younger generations for sharing their vote between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The Liberal Democrats increased their overall support from 7.3 percent to 11.5 percent and the Greens from 1.6 percent to 2.7 percent, but gained no extra seats. This is why Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party managed to win 44 percent of the general vote and a convincing majority of 80 seats in Parliament, even though it received the backing of only 19 percent (less than one in five) of the youngest group of voters.

Rise of young cosmopolitans

Over the past decade, young people in the UK have emerged as a cohesive political force – in strong support of British membership of the European Union and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – but have suffered a string of electoral defeats to older generations. 

The fact that they cannot yet singlehandedly carry a party to victory, however, does not mean their potential should be ignored. 

In our 2019 book, Youthquake 2017: The Rise of Young Cosmopolitans in Britain, Professor Matt Henn and I demonstrated how the June 2017 general election was a landmark contest for young people.

There was a large increase in youth voter turnout, as age replaced class as the best predictor of voting intention. The youngest cohort (18 to 24-year-olds) turned out to vote at the highest rate for a quarter of a century – Ipsos MORI and YouGov estimated increases in youth turnout in 2017 of 15 percentage points and 16 percentage points, to 54 percent and 59 percent respectively. 

Younger generations have borne the brunt of the financial crisis: From a hostile labour market and the soaring costs of housing to savage public spending cuts and the trebling of university tuition fees to 9,000 pounds ($11,742) a year. After years of disillusionment with electoral politics, in 2017 they decided to go to the polls, because this time they were voting for a cause – ending cuts in public spending – and a party that they believe represents their progressive vision for the future – Corbyn’s Labour. In the end, a landmark 62 percent of them supported Labour, helping deny Theresa May‘s Conservative Party a majority in the last Parliament.

In our book, we dubbed this phenomenon the rise of “young cosmopolitans” – a socially liberal, left-leaning cohort of young people. 

Deepening intergenerational fault-lines

In 2019, about a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds believed that poverty and the high cost of living were among the most important issues compared with just 10 percent of those over 65. Younger generations’ support for greater public spending and state intervention is, therefore, the first intergenerational fault-line in British politics.

Lord Ashcroft polling reported that today’s young people are also more relaxed about immigration and supportive of cultural diversity in comparison with older generations. Only 4 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds, and 18 percent of over 65s, believed that immigration was one of the most important issues facing the country. As a result, young Britons recognise the economic and cultural benefits of EU membership. In the 2016 Referendum, about three-quarters of 18 to 24-year-olds supported “Remain”. Younger generations’ support for “cosmopolitan” values constitutes the second intergenerational fault-line in British politics.

Yet, young people remain distrusting of mainstream parties and politicians in the backdrop of Brexit and austerity politics. This explains the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn, with his anti-austerity policies and anti-establishment credentials, and his deliberate efforts to connect with younger voters (from his appearance at the Glastonbury music festival in 2017 to the mobilisation of young activists through the Momentum campaign group).

Since 2017 there has been a further “youthquake” in political participation that has materialised outside the arena of electoral politics. Hundreds of thousands of young people have participated in action against climate change, which has left the main political parties struggling to catch-up. It has also raised environmental issues to the top of young people’s political agenda: In 2019, 32 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds believed it was one of the most important issues (the second-highest priority after the National Health Service) compared with only 10 percent of those above the age of 65 (the sixth-highest priority for this age group). Younger generations’ support for environmental issues (another “cosmopolitan” value) constitutes the third intergenerational fault-line in British politics.

These intergenerational fault-lines are relevant to many other countries, where a highly-educated generation of young people share left-leaning cosmopolitan values and oppose socially conservative candidates and parties. In the United States, for example, Bernie Sanders, the radical Democratic Party presidential candidate, is particularly popular with young Democrats. On the other hand, only a quarter of 18 to 30-year-olds in the US approve of the job President Donald Trump is doing, compared with more than a half of over 65s.

The youth movement for action against climate change is also international in character. The school strikes, inspired by Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish climate activist, spread through the internet and social media across the world. Within a year, the movement has grown from one girl protesting in a town square in Sweden, to a reported six million joining protests this September.

In British academia we have witnessed the surge in youth political engagement first-hand. The number of young people enrolling in politics degrees has risen by about a third since the Referendum in 2016. In an era of Brexit, Trump and – on the other side of the coin – Greta Thunberg, this generation of young people has become deeply politicised (if not enamoured with mainstream politicians and parties).

Despite the general election result, young people in Britain will continue to be engaged in politics by other means – from street demonstrations for Remain, to school strikes against climate change and direct action through Extinction Rebellion. If the past few years have shown us anything, it is that the arena of electoral politics is diminishing, while youth politics is increasingly bubbling up through social movements and other digitally networked forms of citizen action.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.