By Dr Stuart Fox, Social and Political Sciences
11 Dec 2019
One of the most remarkable features of the 2017 General Election was that it was the first time that age became a key dividing line in British politics.
The easiest way to predict how someone voted was to ask them how old they were: if they were under-40, they probably voted Labour (at least in England and Wales), otherwise they probably voted Conservative.
Labour’s success among young adults is going to be equally vital to their performance in the 2019 election: to deprive Boris Johnson of the majority he craves, they not only need to hold onto the support of voters under 25 (around two-thirds of whom voted Labour in 2017), but to grow support among those closer to 40 who were not as passionate advocates of the party (around 59% of whom reported voting Labour in 2017). If they are to get anywhere near a majority, they will need to improve support substantially among voters over 40 (barely a third of whom supported them in 2017).
The opinion polls suggest that Labour are on course to dominate the votes of young adults once again. In a YouGov poll conducted on 5/6th of December, 44% of 18-24 year olds reported planning to vote Labour, compared with just 13% and 10% planning to vote Conservative and Liberal Democrat respectively. This is lower than the two-thirds who reported voting Labour in 2017, but is likely to produce a similar result. There is also evidence that Labour have managed to mobilise the youth vote to a similar extent as in 2017. Between the 20th October (just before the election campaign began) and 6th December, Labour’s support among the 18-24 year olds has risen by 25-points (from 19% to 44%). In addition, the proportion of 18-24 year olds who are certain to vote has risen by 24 points (from 33% to 57%). In 2017, the equivalent figures between a YouGov poll on 26th April and just before polling day on 7th June, 24-point increase for vote share and a 20-point increase in those ‘certain to vote’.
While it is clearly good news for Labour and supporters of a second EU Referendum that the party plans to hold onto those ‘youth-heavy’ seats it won in 2017, the bad news for such supporters is that the party has made little headway in seats it failed to win two years ago. Of the 30 constituencies with the highest proportion of 18-35 year olds, for example, Labour won all but four in 2017 (with the SNP taking three in Scotland and the Greens winning in Brighton Pavilion). YouGov’s latest MRP forecast of the result (released last night) predicts that the results of these seats will be exactly the same tomorrow.
To win the election, Labour will also need to make gains among older voters. If we consider 36-49 year olds, the polls suggest that the party has been less successful at winning them over, with 31% of 25-49 year olds planning to vote Labour tomorrow, compared with 34% who planned to support the party in 2017. That said, the polls also suggest Labour may be having more success in mobilising this age group than in 2017: the 31% of 25-49 year olds planning to vote Labour on Thursday might be slightly lower than in 2017, but is an increase of 11-points since 20 October. In the 2017 election, the increase between April and June was just 6-points.
Of the 30 constituencies with the most 36-49 year olds, Labour won 21 such seats in 2017, with the Conservatives taking 7 and the Liberal Democrats 1. YouGov’s MRP forecast suggests Labour will make one gain at the expense of the Conservatives – taking Putney – and hold onto their gains from 2017. That said, anti-Brexit voters may encouraged by the fact that YouGov are currently projecting that the Liberal Democrats will take two of these seats from the Conservatives (Richmond Park and St Albans).
Looking at the constituencies with the fewest young voters, there is no sign of Labour making any progress. Of the 30 constituencies with the fewest 18 to 35 year olds, Labour won only one (Sefton Central) in 2017, with the Conservatives taking 28 (and the SNP the remaining seat). YouGov’s MRP forecast suggests that Labour will lose support in all of these seats (although the party is projected to hold onto Sefton Central).
As the election campaign enters its final day, Labour supporters and voters opposed to Brexit can take comfort from the fact that Labour are expected to hold all of their gains among young voters and constituencies from 2017 – something that was looking far less likely at the beginning of the campaign. Supporters of a second referendum can even be encouraged that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are looking likely to win three seats from the Conservatives thanks to their support among the younger electorate. That said, for Boris Johnson to be removed from Downing Street, the Conservatives will have to lose far more than three seats, and there is little evidence that Labour have managed to broaden their support base beyond the under-40s to anything like the extent needed to produce such a result. If the Conservatives remain in government after tomorrow’s poll, at least part of the blame is likely to lie with Labour’s inability to move beyond its 2017 youth vote.