Many things have disappeared from British politics since it became mostly about the pandemic. One of the most important has been the idea that the interests and grievances of people under 40 are worth a lot of attention from the main parties.
During the Jeremy Corbyn era younger voters enjoyed rare influence, reinvigorating Labour and frightening the Conservatives. Even when that period effectively ended at the 2019 election, Labour beat the Tories among voters aged 18 to 24 by an unprecedented 43 percentage points. The sea of young faces at Corbyn rallies looked like a mass awakening that would have consequences.
Yet since then our politics has aged again. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson have prioritised elderly people and treated the young with contempt. From the culture wars to the chaos in schools, benefits cuts to the climate crisis, the government’s message to younger Britons has been consistent: you don’t matter. Meanwhile Keir Starmer’s Labour party has followed a milder version of the same strategy, concentrating on the often older voters it has lost while offering its younger supporters little.
But the desire of many young people for a different Britain has not gone. Beyond parliamentary politics, even people on the right acknowledge it. Earlier this month free-market thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs published Left Turn Ahead, a survey of young people’s attitudes towards capitalism and socialism.
“Younger people really do quite consistently express hostility to capitalism, and positive views of socialist alternatives,” it found. The common argument that “they will grow out of it”, the survey continued, “is simply not borne out by the data. There are no detectable differences between the economic attitudes of people in their late teens and people in their early 40s”. These attitudes might be “a preview” of “mainstream opinion in Britain tomorrow”.
Despite this eye-catching conclusion, the IEA’s report has received relatively little attention. It doesn’t fit the prevailing view, on both the left and the right, that Britain is in a conservative phase that still has a long time to run. There is also a widespread, in some ways contradictory, assumption that young voters have always been leftwing – that their discontent with the status quo is nothing new.
But that assumption is mistaken. At every general election from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, and again in 2010, as many or more under-45 voters chose the Tories as Labour. The radicalisation of the young, which has also happened in other parts of Europe and the United States, is a new feature of 21st-century western politics.
One reason for this radicalism’s spread and persistence, despite its lack of electoral success, is that it is rooted in everyday experience – in particular, the modern experience of work. Zero-hours contracts, exploitative internships, graduates stuck in cafe jobs, a decade of stagnant wages, general precariousness. Work for all but the most privileged young employees is a daily reminder of capitalism’s diminishing rewards.
These malign trends affect older workers too – which may be why, at the last election, Labour won more votes than the Tories from working Britons. But older workers may at least have savings or property, acquired when work was more rewarding. Only the under-45s have spent their entire working lives in the “flexible” labour market the Conservatives created and New Labour largely accepted. No wonder many young voters feel alienated from both parties.
So the launch by Labour earlier this week of a “new deal for working people” could be significant. Not just as the beginning of an answer to the charge that Starmer has no policies, but also as a set of possible reforms to Britain’s increasingly Victorian work culture, and as a way for Labour to reconnect with the young electorate it needs to remain a viable party in the long term and have a chance of returning to power.
Given Starmer’s caution up to now, Labour’s proposals are surprisingly ambitious. They include “the right to flexible working for all workers … from day one of employment” – unless there is a conclusive reason that a job cannot be done flexibly or remotely. This flexibility could mean working hours arranged “around school runs and other family and caring responsibilities”. Labour envisages work “fitting around people’s lives rather than dictating their lives”.
The party also wants to create “a single status of ‘worker’ for all but the genuinely self-employed”, and to abolish the current qualifying periods for basic employee rights such as sick pay, holiday pay, paid parental leave and protection against unfair dismissal. It wants all workers to “have stable, secure employment”, and the right to “disconnect from work at home outside of working hours”.
Labour claims these measures would “fundamentally change our economy”, and it is hard to argue. The balance of power between employer and employee would be significantly altered. Yet this idea has not provoked the kind of outrage this week that you might expect. The employers’ organisation the CBI said that, like Labour, it wants “an inclusive economy”, and criticised the party’s proposals only in limited terms, as “overly prescriptive”.
Labour people involved with promoting the policies see the lack of controversy as a success. One source says: “When we talked about work under Jeremy Corbyn, we sounded too radical and endlessly triggered the rightwing press. It was a disaster. This time, we’re not going to lead with our chins.”
While the detail of the proposals has been laid out by Angela Rayner and Andy McDonald, two relatively leftwing figures, the broad case for them has been presented by Starmer in studiedly conservative and patriotic language: that a job should provide “dignity and security”, and that Labour “can make Britain the best place to work”. Thus his party hopes to appeal both to young voters and older ones. “Whether you’ve got a mortgage on a semi in Barnsley or you rent in Kentish Town”, says the Labour source, “you’re currently getting done over at work.”
The problem with Labour’s approach is that inclusivity can become blandness. In confrontational times, as both Corbyn and Johnson came to understand, getting attention and mobilising voters often involves naming enemies. This week, Labour’s work policies got far less coverage than the government’s cartoonish hi-vis crime measures.
If Labour doesn’t win back young people soon, these voters have alternatives. The Greens are already higher in the polls than they have been for years. Protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion have compelling causes and novel tactics. Even the Conservatives could conceivably appeal to the young again: they’ve done it before.
Young voters have decades to decide their political trajectories. Starmer has far less time.