My talk to Sixth Form students: What on Earth is going on in politics?

It’s been a tumultuous few years in politics, with politicians, pollsters, pundits, political scientists and betting markets failing to predict the outcomes of two general elections, the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. In each instance, on the day of the vote, betting markets gave each of the outcomes that ended up happening a 15% chance of occurring, meaning that the probability of all four events going the way they did was 1 in 20,000. A truly remarkable series of events. On the screen behind me you can see a blog post that I wrote in October 2016 entitled “Trump Can’t Win. This election is now a formality,” an embarrassing error on my part, but I wasn’t alone. One Princeton academic gave Clinton a 99% chance of winning and the bookmaker Paddy Power thought a Trump victory was so unlikely that they payed out $1 million to those who thought Clinton would win weeks ahead of the election actually taking place. If, like me, you stayed up for some of all of these events, to watch the results come in, you will recall the shock as the exit polls came in, or as the result started to deviate from everyone’s expectations, and you will recall walking into school, on no sleep, feeling like something wasn’t right about the world.

In this talk, I don’t intend to try to explain why these events happened or why the predictions of so many people proved to be so wrong. Instead, I want to explore what these results tell us about our politics. In particular, I want to look at why voting patterns in recent elections show a widening gap between the young and the old and between those with a university education and those without. It is these divisions that have shaped our politics over the past few years and which will continue to affect our politics in the foreseeable future.

I will start by talking briefly about what got me interested in politics when I was your age before looking at some recent elections to show that we are increasingly divided by age and education, and not by class, as would have been the case until recently. I will then try to offer some explanation for why different generations view politics differently before, finally, exploring what impact these divisions will have on our politics.

What got me interested in politics?

Before I address the main question of my talk, I want to take a bit of time to talk about what politicised me when I was growing up, and what I learned from it. For those of you who have heard me speak before, or who’ve had me as a politics teacher, you’ve probably heard this before, but I think it’s important to explain to you what got me to care so much about politics, because I think that politics is something you should care about too.

I believe that each generation is politicised by something different, something that marks their generation apart from those that come after. For my father’s generation this was probably the Vietnam War, for those who are slightly younger than my father it might be the election of Margaret Thatcher, the Miner’s Strike, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Black Wednesday, or perhaps even the election of Tony Blair in 1997. For my own part, it was the events of September 11th 2001, when terrorists flew two planes into the twin towers in New York City, which led George W. Bush to declare a “War on Terror” just over a week later in a speech on the south lawn of the White House.

I was in Sixth Form at the time of the attacks, in a car with some friends. I remember the radio being switched on and the news being announced. At that point only one plane had flown into one of the buildings and it was assumed to be a tragic accident. By the time I got home and sat down on the sofa with my mother the second plane had hit and it was clear that something more sinister was going on. It’s difficult to describe or explain the emotions people felt in the days and weeks following the attacks, but what was clear, fairly immediately, is that the world had changed forever.

This is not to say that terrorism is something new to the West. My father’s generation lived through a period where IRA bombings were commonplace, including on the British mainland, but the scale and political motivation behind the attack on September 11th was new, as was the political and cultural response to the attacks.

At the time of the attacks I would have described myself, without really understanding what I meant by it, as fairly left-wing, but the attacks and what followed forced me to reassess my politics. When millions of people joined a global march to protest against the Iraq War – the largest anti-war march in UK history – I challenged a student in my Sixth Form to a debate about the war. Standing up in front of my Sixth Form to defend the invasion of Iraq defined my politics for at least the next decade, but it was also one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made. What is clear to me now, but wasn’t clear to me then, is that an invading army are rarely seen as liberators, even when they are removing a brutal dictator from power. Furthermore, rebuilding the institutions of a country following 24 years of dictatorship, in a country riven by ethnic, nationalist and religious divisions, is not something to be taken to lightly.  The reality is that the Iraq War was predicated on falsehoods and the Americans didn’t adequately plan for what would happen once Saddam Hussain was successfully removed from power. In order to remove all of the remnants of the old regime, the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Iraqi Army and removed everyone who was a member of Saddam Hussein’s political party (The Ba’ath Party) from their positions in the civil service, permanently barring them from government employment. This caused a large amount of unemployment, poverty and maladministration, it heightened sectarian tensions, worsened the security situation and made it impossible for the United States and its allies to be seen as anything other than an occupying power, with inevitable consequences for the future of the country.

According to YouGov polling a majority of British people supported the war in 2003, but a significant minority were bitterly opposed to it, but subsequent events have caused people to misremember their true sentiments. When asked to recall how they felt about the war in 2015, 43% remember thinking the war was wrong compared to only 37% who recall thinking it was right. The true figures from 2003 show that 54% supported the war with only 38% opposing the war. The majority got it wrong and saw themselves as being duped into an illegal and immoral war, shattering Tony Blair’s reputation, although, even so, he went on to win a historic third term in office in 2005.

So, to cut a long story short, that is what got me interested in politics. Before I move on to the main body of my talk, I want to pause to reflect on the lessons I learned from my early engagement in politics. Firstly, and quite obviously, sometimes you get things wrong, and sometimes you get things wrong very publicly. When you do, you should admit it. This can be difficult, even painful, because political convictions don’t change readily and we are prone to seek out information that confirms our pre-existing judgements, but it’s vital that we change our own minds about politics if we expect that other people should do likewise. There’s no point in trying to convince others to change their minds if we aren’t willing to do the same. It follows from this that we should show humility in our own political judgements, especially in situations where there is a great deal of uncertainty about what will result from a particular decision. Iraq was a case in point for me, but so is the decision to leave the European Union, which I bitterly oppose. In politics, and in life, we are often presented with binary choices (leave or remain, war or peace, Labour or Conservative) but (as we are discovering in the Brexit negotiations) reality is always much more complex than this, and so, engaging with subtly and nuance, and keeping an open mind, is vital. Thirdly, and most importantly, politics is about taking part and having a voice, because when we fail to take part, we can’t complain about the outcome after the event. Hilary Clinton won the popular vote in the 2016 US election by 2.8 million votes, but lost the election because 114,000 voters in swing states voted for Trump rather than for her. Given that only 58% of the American electorate voted, and given that 6.9 million voters opted to vote for fringe candidates (such as the Green candidate, Jill Stein) it seems clear – to me at least – that Trump’s election was an avoidable disaster.

The word of the year for 2017, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “youthquake”, which is defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”. My talk will focus on this phenomena, but before I move on to look at how age has affected our politics, it is worth noting that, despite young people voting in larger numbers than they have in 25 years, it remained the case that the older you were, the more likely you were to vote, which is why I want to remind all of you that you can register to vote in the UK as soon as you turn 16, even though you can’t vote until you are 18.

Age matters more than class

We live in an age where our political viewpoint is more easily predicted by what generation we belong to, rather than by the class into which we are born. If you look at data from any election in the UK prior to 1997, class mattered a great deal. If you were working class, you were likely to have voted Labour, if you were middle or upper class you were likely to have voted Conservative. Taking the 1974 election as a typical case study, 57% of the working class (DE) voted Labour whereas 56% of the middle class (ABC1) voted Conservative.

What is interesting about more recent elections and referendums is that class is no longer a good predictor of how people vote. Whilst Labour still did slightly better amongst working class voters compared to the Conservatives in 2017, the margin was tiny, whereas if you look at age this is an excellent predictor of voting behaviour, with younger voters disproportionately voting for Labour and older voters disproportionately voting for the Conservatives.

In the 2017 election, for every 10 years older a voter was, their chance of voting Conservative increased by around nine percentage points and the chance of them voting Labour decreased by nine percentage points. In short, if you were below the age of 47 in 2017, you were more likely to have voted Labour, if you were above the age of 47 you were more likely to have voted Conservative. The other significant predictor of voting behaviour was your education level, with those with only GCSEs or below voting disproportionately Conservative, whereas those with degrees and above voted disproportionately Labour.

The same pattern can be seen in the 2016 EU Referendum, where again we were divided principally by age and education level, with a staggering 71% of 18-24 year olds voting to remain and 64% of those over the age of 65 voting to leave; and with 70% of those with GCSEs or below voting to leave whereas 68% of those with degrees or better voted to remain. In the referendum class was also a factor, with working class voters being significantly more likely to vote to Leave compared to middle class voters, but age was still a better predictor of voting behaviour.

In the 2016 US presidential election age was also a good predictor of how people would vote, with 55% of 18-24 year olds voting for Clinton and 53% of over 65 year olds voting for Trump. And, again, education mattered. Clinton won 58% of the vote of postgraduates, whereas Trump won 51% of the vote amongst those with only a high school qualification, or less. But there is a final factor in the US election, which makes this case slightly different, which is that Trump won the support of 58% of white voters, who make up 70% of the population of America.

So, the data is fairly clear. Our voting patterns are increasingly predicted by our age and by our education level rather than by our class. So, if you were going to ask someone one question to determine how they voted in the 2017 General Election, you wouldn’t ask them what their job was, what part of the country they live in or whether they went to university or not, you would ask them how old they are. So what is causing this voting behaviour and how does it affect our politics?

Issues and policies – The ‘Brexit’ election?

One explanation for the difference in voting between young and old in 2017 might be the different policies of the parties. Labour’s commitment to abolish tuition fees and to bring back the educational maintenance allowances, for example, clearly chimed with young voters, however, polling by YouGov suggests that scrapping tuition fees was the most important issue for only 4% of those polled, whilst the Labour manifesto, in general, and Corbyn in particular were cited by 28% and 15% of voters respectively. Corbyn’s appeal to younger voters is puzzling, to me at least, but it mirrors support for Bernie Sanders in America. Both men are fairly advanced in the years (Corbyn is 68 and Sanders is 76) and yet they are appealing to younger voters in a way that younger politicians have failed to. The idea that the policies, and the election campaign, had an impact on the outcome in 2017 is supported by the dramatic shift in the polls, with Corbyn’s Labour Party going from 25% when the election has called to 40% on polling day. According to the veteran pollster, Sir David Butler, this was the most dramatic shift in polling seen in any election in the post-war period and it was the best result for Labour, in terms of percentage of the vote, since they won a landslide election victory in 1997.

Amongst Conservative voters, Brexit was the dominant issue (which was also the case for voters in general) with the Tories benefitting from voters defecting from UKIP to vote Conservative and the reverse happening to Labour, despite the fact that both parties were committed to leave the European Union in their manifestos.

Many commentators have therefore described the 2017 election as the ‘Brexit election’. The theory here being that the rise in turnout from young voters was largely motivated by their anger at the result of the Brexit vote and by their perception that the Labour Party would go for a softer Brexit or would reverse course on Brexit altogether. Amongst Labour voters, YouGov polling suggests that 45% would be pleased if Labour pledged to reverse Brexit, whilst 42% would react positively to a pledge to call for a second referendum on the issue with 36% happy with Labour’s stated position, which is to back a ‘soft Brexit’. If you look at how people actually voted in 2017, 60% of Leave voters backed the Conservatives and 51% of Remain voters backed Labour, lending support to the idea that Britain divided largely on the basis of how they voted in the EU referendum.

This explanation suggests that the EU referendum opened up a chasm between young and old in our politics, which certainly chimes with my experience talking with older voters, but it doesn’t really explain the cause of this divide.  One possible explanation, put forward by the UK Political Editor of Buzzfeed News, is that the divide is partly explained by where the ‘social media generation’ get their news.

Different news sources – The social media election?

In the 1992 election, on the day of the vote, The Sun led with the headline “If Kinnock wins today will the last person in Britain please turn out the lights?” This was an election that the prime minister, John Major, was expected to lose, but the pollsters got it wrong and he remained Prime Minister with a majority of 21. The reason pollsters gave for their mistake on this occasion was the Conservative voters felt that there was a social stigma attached to voting Conservative, and so they lied to pollsters when they were asked, over the telephone, who they would be voting for. Up until recently, this was the biggest shock in any UK General Election, with some arguing that The Sun’s support for the Tories was pivotal.

In 1997, The Sun switched allegiance and backed Tony Blair’s Labour Party, in an election which the Labour Party won in dramatic fashion – securing a majority of 179. Very few people claim that it really was “The Sun wot won it”, as they claimed the next day on their front page, but it isn’t a fluke that The Sun tends to endorse the winning party, which is why Tony Blair flew half way around the world in 1995 to attend a News International Conference where he could introduce himself to The Sun’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, and it is why there are allegations that both Tony Blair and David Cameron did a deal with Rupert Murdock to secure the support of The Sun in order to influence the millions of people who read this newspaper on a daily basis.

The press were disproportionately hostile to the Labour Party in the 2017 election, with only The Guardian and The Mirror supporting Labour, whereas the Conservatives were supported by The Times, The Telegraph, The Mail, The Express and The Financial Times. To illustrate the point, here are three headlines taken from the Sun and the Mail, highlighting the animosity and vitriol directed at the Labour leadership during the campaign.

But, if we look at which news stories were picked up by social media, they were disproportionately positive about Corbyn and Labour and negative about Theresa May. To give just one example, an article criticising May for removing a commitment to crack down on the Ivory trade was shared 70,000 times on social media despite barely being mentioned by the mainstream broadcast media. The article was subsequently picked up by The Mirror and The Independent and so probably ended up reaching millions of people. In order to assess the reach of the story, YouGov polled people to see if they had heard of the story and they found that 14% of the general public and 30% of those aged 18-24 had heard of the story. Similarly, a pledge to give Parliament a free vote on bringing back Fox Hunting, which went viral on social media during the campaign, was remembered by 56% of voters in a YouGov poll compared to only 23% of voters remembering one of Labour’s key policies – to introduce private rent controls. Looking specifically at Twitter, tweets about the Labour Party dominated online discussion throughout the campaign, suggesting that there is a significant left-wing bias on social media, which may have had a disproportionate impact on the ‘social media generation.’

However, this argument ignores the polling evidence on where people say they get their news from, with 64% of young people saying they get their daily news from the BBC, compared to 23% for Facebook, 16% for Twitter and 20% for BuzzFeed. A clear indication that the decline of traditional media has been overstated by some.

Having said this, 50% of 18-24 year olds said social media had influenced their vote at the General Election and 63% said they agreed that social media had diminished the influence of newspapers on the outcome of elections, with 58% of 18-24 year olds agreeing that the outcome of the election would have been different without the influence of social media. So it seems that young people are influenced by social media, and that this influence was perceived by them to be significant. It’s equally clear that this effect can be overstated, as traditional news sources, like the BBC, still dominate most people’s engagement with the news, including 18-24 year olds.

It’s the economy, stupid

One of the biggest differences between the generations is home ownership. Increasingly, younger voters are finding it difficult or impossible to get on the housing ladder and so they are delaying or putting off indefinitely their dream of owning their own home. Whereas in the 1980s over 30% of 16-24 year olds were home owners, now the figure is now less than 10%, with only 36% of people managing to get on the property ladder by their mid-thirties. Commentators have suggested that those born in the 80s and 90s (the so-called ‘millennials’) have therefore delayed many of the things that are defining features of adulthood, such as having a family and leaving home for the first time, and those that do live in private rented accommodation.

Homeownership has always been strongly correlated with support for the Conservative Party, possibly because once you have assets you want to protect them by voting for a party that will keep taxes low. This explains why homeowners vote for the Conservative Party 10 percentage points more than the average voter, whereas those in private rented accommodation vote for Labour 25 percentage points more than the average voter.

Given that house prices have risen by around 7% a year since the 1980s, the fact that young people can’t get on the property ladder is also driving a divergence in wealth between the generations. According to a report by the Resolution Foundation:

“It is becoming increasingly evident that the 20th century promise of generation-on-generation living standards improvements is under threat today. In a range of areas, millennials (born 1981-2000) are falling behind their predecessors at the same age. Nowhere is this reversal of generational progress clearer than in relation to home ownership and wider wealth accumulation. Millennials are currently half as likely to own their own home at age 30 as the baby boomers (born 1946-65) were, and all cohorts born after 1955 are accumulating less wealth than their predecessors at the same age had.”

It may therefore be the case that socio-economic factors are still driving voting behaviour, but that differences of wealth, which would once have correlated strongly with social class, now correlate much more strongly with age, or with what generation you were born into. In short: Older voters are voting Conservative to protect their assets from a ‘tax and spend’ Labour government and younger voters are voting for the Labour Party because addressing the gap between the rich and the poor serves their economic interest.

This explanation would also partly explain the Brexit vote, because the decision to leave the European Union will have a much more significant effect on younger voters. As the political philosopher, Martin O’Neil argues:

[Can it be] justifiable for those who will be less affected by the consequences of such a huge decision to impose it on those whose interests are more extensively at stake, and who strongly favour a different outcome? Yet that is certainly what has happened. If Brexit becomes a reality, and if the principle of free movement is abandoned, then the young people of Britain, who are pro-European and pro-EU by a substantial margin, will have seen what they might have believed to have been their birth-right – their European citizenship, which grants them the right to work, study, or, let’s imagine, fall in love, settle down and raise a family in any of the 28 EU countries – taken away from them. It will have been taken from them given the voting decisions of age cohorts who will, in general, not be as significantly affected by this loss of European citizenship.

Different attitudes between the old and the young

The final factor I want to look at is differences in social attitudes between older and younger voters. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, a small majority of British citizens believe that immigration is good for the UK, but there is a huge divide between older voters less well-educated voters and younger more well-educated voters on this issue. In fact there is a 46 percentage point gap between the views of graduates aged 45 and under (who think immigration is a good thing) and non-graduates aged over 65 (who think immigration is a bad thing).

Given the focus of the Brexit campaign in the final weeks, this could have been a key driver of the different voting patterns between younger and older voters. With older voters seeing the slogan “take back control” as an indication that a post-Brexit Britain would bring down immigration. Nigel Farage was widely criticised for standing in front of a poster depicting a group of mostly non-white immigrants with “Breaking Point” in bold letters written on the poster, but this message is likely to have been effective with the voters who ended up voting for Brexit, and could explain the gap between younger and older voters in the Brexit referendum. Indeed, this is also backed up by data from the British Social Attitudes Survey, who found that “among those who named immigration as a concern, as many as 73% voted to leave; among those who did not cite this as a concern just 36% did so.”

Another related factor that was explored by the British Social Attitudes survey was how people’s cultural identity affected their vote. They classified people as being ‘authoritarian’ or ‘libertarian’ based upon whether or not people want society to be structured around a common set of shared values and customs (authoritarian) or whether people are comfortable living in a more diverse society, where they are happy for others to choose their own moral beliefs and cultural practices (libertarian). Using these classifications, they found that 72% of those voters judged to be most authoritarian voted to  leave, compared to just 21% of those judged to be least authoritarian. This helps to explain why metropolitan areas like London voted disproportionately for Remain and for Labour, as voters in the capital are used to living amongst diversity and are much more comfortable with the idea that people should be able to live according to their own values and beliefs. This also explains why the survey found that voters who described their national identity in more exclusive terms were more likely to vote Leave, with 72% of voters who described themselves as “English, not British” voting to leave compared to 38% of those who described themselves as “British, not English”.

The final suggestion, and one that has dominated much of the media narrative around most of these shocking political events, is that the Brexit vote represented a general antipathy towards politics and politicians, with voters feeling alienated from an increasingly distant political elite. There is some evidence for this view, for example:

  • 62% of those with little interest in politics voted to Leave
  • 55% of those who agreed that “people like me don’t have any say on what the government does” voted to Leave
  • 65% of those who greatly distrust government voted to Leave


I started the talk by discussing my own interest in politics. By doing so, I was trying to imply that you and I belong to subtly different political generations and that I belong to a subtly different political generation to your parents or your grandparents. During the talk I’ve described a Britain where one of the biggest social cleavages is caused by age and then by levels of education. The evidence tells us that we are living in a divided country, with older less well-educated voters sharing different values and beliefs compared to younger more well-educated voters. It’s also clear that different generations have different economic interests and that, increasingly, they get their news from different sources.

I clearly belong very strongly in the Remainer camp based upon the fact that I’m young, metropolitan and university educated, and, if I’m honest, the cleavages I’ve discussed in this talk today do feel very real to me and I do feel a sense of alienation, even resentment, towards those who took a different view to me in the EU referendum. When our values and beliefs are so polarised it takes a much stronger force of will to try to reach out and understand those who stand on the other side of a political divide. But, we must remain humble in our own political views and we must be willing to listen to others. One of the important things to realise about different generations is that when we are born gives us a radically different perspective on the world around us, as evidence by the effect that September 11th had on my politics which it couldn’t have had on yours, at least not in the same way.

A German political philosopher, and sympathiser with the Nazi Party, Carl Schmitt, described politics as being primarily about political decisions that have the effect of dividing friend from enemy. He probably took this view of politics partly because the Germany of his day was becoming increasingly divided between the radical left and far right. Unfortunately, I think the trends that I have described today are associated with an uglier politics, which pits us against each other by dividing us into rival tribes, because the nature of politics is that someone has to win and someone has to lose. The solution to this quandary can be found in the work of another German political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who counsels us to engage in political action to fulfil our duties as citizens. For those of us, like myself, who was on the wrong side of all of these recent political earthquakes, the world has felt like a strange, and perhaps, less welcoming place. But, as the great socialist stalwart, Tony Benn, made clear “there are no permanent winners and no permanent losers in politics.” Trumps presidency will come and go, Theresa May’s government is looking more fragile with each passing day, and even the outcome of the EU referendum is reversible given enough time.

Thank you for listening to me today. Don’t forget to register to vote.

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