'If progressive parties want to remove the Conservatives from power at the next election, they have to challenge their electoral dominance amongst this voter group.'
Ben Cooper (@BenCooper1995) is a senior researcher at the Fabian Society
Since 2010, the Conservatives have remained in government largely because of one group: older voters. At every election since then, increasing numbers of voters over 55 backed the Tories.
In 2019, according to Ipsos MORI, the Conservative lead was record-breaking: they were 47 percentage points ahead of Labour with over-65s, and 22 percentage points ahead with those aged 55 to 64. If progressive parties want to remove the Conservatives from power at the next election, they have to challenge their electoral dominance amongst this voter group.
Older voters have significant political power. They turn out to vote more than any other age group, and large numbers of them are concentrated in target seats. Over 40 per cent of Labour’s English and Welsh target seats have more than a third of the population aged 55 and over – compared to just 14 per cent of the seats Labour won in 2019.
An increasingly ageing population makes persuading these voters even more necessary. The 2021 Census found that the proportion of the population aged 55 and over was 31 per cent, up 3 per cent in a decade. If the next election is held in 2024, the Fabian Society estimates there could be over a million more older voters than there were in 2019.
Progressive parties do not need to win every older voter, or even a majority of them. But they cannot ignore them, as Labour, in particular, seems to have done in the recent past. If progressive parties fail to persuade older voters, an ageing population will result in larger Conservative leads in elections that cannot be overcome by persuading younger voters.
There are reasons to be optimistic, especially for the Labour Party. Many older voters are unhappy with the government. Our Fabian Society research found two million older voters (ten per cent of all people aged 55 and over) who did not vote for Labour in 2019 and now say there is a good chance they will vote for the party. Some of these voters will not vote at all, some will stay with the Conservatives, but many could back Labour or another smaller progressive party – and could therefore decide the next election.
There is little sign that the Conservative leadership candidates understand the threat. So far, their leadership race – and the TV debates – has been dominated by tax cuts with little consideration about how it will impact the public services that older voters rely on, including the NHS, social care, and the state pension. ‘Woke’ debates are seen as a distraction by many older voters, yet some candidates have made them central to their campaign. Real solutions to the cost of living crisis have barely been discussed, despite the fact that it is weighing heavily on older voters’ minds.
Progressives in Labour or the smaller parties should use this opportunity to connect with older voters across the country. The party should set out a positive and unifying story about the future of our country that contrasts favourably to the government’s current lack of direction.
For Labour, this should start with prioritising security in all its forms – in the workplace, in local communities, and in an uncertain world. Security is a value that can unify different generations, but it means progressives have to move away from the language of ‘revolution’ and ‘transformation’ without losing a sense of ambition for government. Labour knows this well: ‘security, prosperity, respect’ is their current strapline.
Labour also needs to continue to reassure older voters on fiscal credibility and economic competence. This isn’t about lowering the ambition to reform the economy, but showing clearly that the party understands the importance of responsible finances and maximising value for money. Labour must prove to voters that it can be trusted with the public finances and the economy, in order to be heard on other issues where they have a comfortable lead, whether that’s public services, the cost of living crisis or regional inequality.
Whoever the next Conservative Party leader is, Labour – and other progressive parties – should focus on persuading older voters to give them a chance. There is no route to a centre-left government that doesn’t involve persuading many more older people to vote Labour. By focusing on security and economic competence, Labour can show they understand the priorities of older voters, at a time when the Conservatives increasingly look out of touch.
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