Why Labour is losing Generation X

As youth icons go, Jeremy Corbyn—the earnest, now-septuagenarian Labour backbencher fond of home-made jam, allotments and manhole covers—was always an unlikely one. But nevertheless, his tenure as Labour leader saw young people engage with parliamentary politics in a way they hadn’t done for decades, with thousands flooding into the Labour Party and millions enthused by its left-wing policies. Famously, for a time, Corbyn’s name even reverberated around Britain’s music festivals.

Since succeeding Corbyn as Labour leader, much of what Keir Starmer has done—waging bureaucratic warfare on left-run constituency parties, rowing back on previous policy commitments, and petulantly withholding the Labour whip from Corbyn himself—seems to have been predicated on the assumption that his predecessor is almost universally despised among the electorate. Certainly, this is a state of affairs which much of the Parliamentary Labour Party has worked very hard to bring about.

However, a recent opinion poll suggests that many Labour supporters feel otherwise. It found that among people who voted Labour in 2019—not party members—38 per cent of them would prefer it if Corbyn were still party leader, as opposed to 45 per cent who preferred Starmer. Considering the generally easy ride Starmer has been given by the media since assuming the office, and the probably unprecedented campaign of personal vilification to which Corbyn has been subjected, this isn’t a particularly convincing margin.

The generational divide among those Labour voters was stark. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, 56 per cent preferred Corbyn compared to 29 per cent for Starmer, while 25 to 34-year-olds favoured Corbyn by a margin of 46 per cent to 37 per cent. Starmer’s most enthusiastic support came from older demographics: 65 per cent of 55 to 64-year-olds preferred Starmer over his predecessor, as did 64 per cent of over-65s.

Why did Corbyn draw so much support from younger age groups—using the term advisedly here, given that the people we’re talking about are the under-40s—and why do younger Labour voters still regard him favourably? It’s simple enough: it’s because he was the first politician in their lifetimes to take their opinions seriously and view their concerns as legitimate. His policies spoke to their material needs and offered them the prospect of a more hopeful future and a less inhumane political culture, after years of scapegoating.

Starmer, by contrast, has barely addressed them in the year since he took over the Labour leadership. Instead, the focus has been on the ‘Red Wall’, and even then, only a certain subsection of voters within it. When politicians and pundits reference the ‘Red Wall’, we can probably assume that they don’t mean young workers in retail, services, warehouses, factories or public services struggling to make ends meet, but older, home-owning social conservatives. Young workers in the major cities, meanwhile, are dismissed as elitists.

In an article for the Guardian, Owen Jones discussed some of the difficulties around the emerging generational politics. For a start, of course entire generations are far from homogenous, stratified as they are by class and other inequalities. Nor is it that younger people are inherently left-wing. They certainly weren’t during the Thatcher years: in 1983, the Tories actually led Labour among younger voters. Yet there is a growing material divide as well as a cultural one, even if the latter is commonly used to obfuscate the former.

Keir Milburn, in his book of the same name, has termed this younger cohort ‘Generation Left’. It has largely looked to the left for solutions to the problems with which it is faced: extortionate rents and house prices, stagnant wages and disappointing employment prospects (which have likely been substantially worsened by the pandemic). Likewise, it favours the kind of radical action on climate change, and against embedded structural racism, which only the socialist left appears to be offering.

Previous routes to social mobility have also been closed off, as housing wealth is increasingly concentrated among over-65s. The Tories are desperate to prop the housing market up, taking ever greater risks with that aim in mind. Right-wingers panic about why so many younger people are leaning left, fulminating at length about “wokeness” and supposed indoctrination at universities. In fact, the real explanation is much simpler: the prospects facing a lot of young people are poor, and the status quo isn’t working for them.

For all the chuntering nonsense in the media about middle-class, metropolitan quinoa munchers taking over the Labour Party, the people who rallied to Corbyn’s banner were among the millions getting a raw deal out of capitalism. It shouldn’t come as a shock, then, that many of them interpret the attacks on Corbyn—and the bureaucratic, anti-socialist reaction currently sweeping through the Labour Party—as implicit attacks on themselves, and feel that their own concerns, values and priorities are being denigrated.

Part of the problem for Labour is that its current leadership seems to have little understanding, or instinctive sympathy, with these younger people. You get the feeling that, like Emmanuel Macron in France, it would prefer to dissolve its current support base and assemble another. Young workers, minorities and renters tend to favour much more ambitious and contentious reforms than Starmer and his allies appear comfortable with. As such, he has so far shown little interest in catering to them.

But unless Starmer offers them more, and if he continues to punch left has he has done since becoming Labour leader, he risks driving them away and leaving them harbouring a lasting grudge towards the party. Even in 2019, despite the scale of the defeat Labour suffered overall, it still enjoyed strong support among the under-40s. This ought to have provided Starmer with a foundation to build on, and yet, so far, he has remained aloof to those who were, at least until recently, among Labour’s most enthusiastic supporters.

The post-Covid outlook is also bleak for young workers. The pandemic-induced increase in unemployment has already hit them hardest: of the 726,000 jobs lost since the onset of the pandemic, around three-fifths of those made redundant have been aged under 25. The precarisation of the British labour market, already far advanced, looks set to accelerate even further as a result of the crisis, while those young workers who have been on the front line in the NHS are now faced with an insultingly low pay rise by way of thanks.

Will Starmer and his advisers be overly concerned about losing younger voters? Maybe not. The priority of the Labour right is to strengthen its grip on the party machinery, ensuring that its own position—and those of its party bureaucrats, councillors and MPs—is never again threatened by a Corbyn-style grassroots insurgency. The common argument that it was the Labour left that didn’t care about winning never held water: if anything, its desperation to win led it to make self-defeating compromises with the right, hastening Corbynism’s demise.
aNor is it true that young people have “nowhere else to go”. In Scotland, they’ve largely already gone to the pro-independence parties, and are unlikely to be tempted by the hyper-unionist, throwback Blairism of Anas Sarwar. In Wales, Plaid Cymru may look like an attractive alternative for some. In England, however, young voters could simply revert to abstention unless offered an incentive to do otherwise. If Keir Starmer values their votes, he’ll have to earn them. Looking at recent polling, Labour needs all the support it can get.

In addition, tackling the issues that are most important to ‘Generation Left’—on housing, workplace rights and protections, racism and xenophobia, and climate justice—would require Labour to confront powerful vested interests: a confrontation which its right wing, still desperate to be seen as business-friendly, does not want. Tony Blair made the point openly, namely that even if he believed a left-wing, pro-worker platform offered Labour a potential route to victory, he wouldn’t take it.

The crushing of Corbynism is the first major triumph the Labour right has had in years. It’s worth reflecting on what that “triumph” entailed: stamping out the energy and enthusiasm of people who finally saw reason for hope in parliamentary politics, many for the first time. Objectively, they weren’t asking for much—a welfare state that provides dignity and support, affordable housing, quality healthcare and social care. But already, after just under a year of Starmer, the Labour Party looks much as it did pre-Corbyn: toothless and moribund.

While there’s been a frantic effort to put ‘Generation Left’ back in its box, it won’t be so easy, with multiple crises—economic, environmental, and social—all piling up. The Tories realise this, which is why they’re moving so quickly to introduce boundary changes to benefit older, Tory-held constituencies, along with compulsory voter ID to depress turnout among precarious young workers and minorities. Though to be honest, if the Labour Party continues on its current trajectory, it will be depressing turnout among these groups all by itself.

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