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Youth and the aspirational centre

Written By: - Date published: 12:20 pm, December 5th, 2019 - 12 comments
Categories: Austerity, Brexit, uk politics - Tags: , , ,

One of the cliche’s you hear from those active in politics over the last 30 years is that “you have to win the centre”. What is this centre? Presumably the people who float between the political left and the political right in the construct that is western parliamentary democracy. But what does this mean?

The reality is the concept of this centre has always been a bit of nonsense by those who want to simplify politics down to very basic groupings of voters. The theory is that there are those on the left and those on the right. Then there are these centrist voters who swing between left and right and they decide the election. In the UK context where there is a First Past the Post electoral system, this means that elections are won or lost on a couple of dozen marginal constituencies, mostly made up of middle class aspirational swing voters.

So who are these centrist voters. It’s generally believed that they are middle class and aspirational voters who seek short term gratification in politics. They maybe enticed by a tax cut here, or a spending promise there. Or maybe they are looking for a slick charismatic leader who looks good in a suit? Whoever this group are, those who’ve been active in politics have been told its existence is real and to believe in it. When media report on elections, they talk about the centre and we are all told this is where things are won or lost.

In 2008 a major financial crisis hit the world economy. In Britain and many other countries this was followed by policies of Austerity where the majority of people took a hit to their standard of living to pay for the foolish and selfish decisions of those in the major financial institutions and governments globally.

In 2017 UK general election, it was predicted that the Conservatives would win by a landslide. Why? Well the polls said so. The polls made various assumptions about turnout and which constituencies were marginal and likely to turn. Also commentators assumed that Labour under Corbyn had moved too far left, and could not win the centre ground and win. All of this commentary and analysis proved to be bullshit.

So what happened? Since 2008 the policies of austerity hit people in the UK hard. Specifically they have hit young people hard. A generation ago, home ownership was achievable for many, now its a pipe dream for all but the privileged few. Tertiary education was free until the late 1990s, when the Blair Labour government introduced tuition fees. Under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition tuition fees in the UK rose to the highest in Europe. 1/3 of all new jobs in the UK since 2010 have been precarious, often on zero hour contracts or insecure in nature. For many under 30s, including university educated and middle class, paying the rent and doing the groceries each month has become a challenge. The middle class swing voter was suppose to be aspirational, generally on an ok income but wanting to do better. For the generation of young people coming through now, life is much harder than it was for their parents generation – and they are rightly pissed off.

Not so surprisingly, when this group of voters were offered austerity or austerity light in the 2015 UK general election, many under 30s stayed at home on polling day. 2 year later, when Labour offered an end to austerity, abolishing tuition fees, increase the minimum wage and investment in public services – young people turned out. What became known as the youth quake, young people enrolled and voted in much higher than usual numbers. As a result, instead of getting their best election result since 1983 the UK Conservatives lost their majority and Labour were only a handful of seats away from government.

Image result for youthquake 2017 election

The journalists and political establishment couldn’t work it out. The centre, the centre – this result makes no sense. The centre wouldn’t vote for a Labour Party thats moved left. And why are young people voting, and voting in ways that differed from older generations. Even within the Labour Party establishment there was shock. The offical Labour Campaign in 2017 was a defensive one aiming to hold onto seats and survive the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who everyone assumed would be gone after the crushing defeat of 2017. Labour MP’s critical of Corbyn were shocked and in many cases not happy to discover that Labour having moved to the left had gained votes. What about the centre? Was everything they learnt studying Political Science at Oxford University a load of bullocks? Surely not?

The campaign by Momentum, the faction set up to defend Corbyn’s leadership and anti austerity polices run their own election campaign in 2017, seperate to Labour Party HQ. This campaign engaged thousands of young voters using social media and running numerous campaign activities across the country. They didn’t get Labour into government, but they got close. Labour’s national vote increased by over 9% – the party’s single biggest gain in any election.

The Conservatives also increased their national share of the vote by 5%. But for them this increase happened mostly in constituencies the party already held, and did so by taking votes off UKIP. Labours increased vote share, in many cases came from new first time voters. The result was so-called un-winnable constituencies like Canterbury or Kensington falling to Labour.

Two years on what has been learnt? Many pollsters assume 2017 was a one off fluke, and again assume turnout for under 30s will be low. The media, political scientists and commentators and senior people in most political parties are assuming that the election will be won by winning centre voters. Although many are adding the the Brexit vs Remain divide into the mix. Record numbers of young people have enrolled to vote, with high profile musician Stormzy allegedly causing a spike in enrolments. This has been reported, but many commentators are ignoring it.

We will find out on December 12th whether young voters turn out in large numbers like 2017, and if they do what impact it will have on the final result. But what is clear is that the old rules of politics can’t be taken for granted. Much as many in the political elite would like politics not to have changed from 25 years ago, it has. Elections are now far more volatile, unpredictable and polarised. And for the generation of younger voters coming through, the old rules do not apply.

To support Momentum campaign for a Corbyn led Labour Government in the UK you can give your support here.

12 comments on “Youth and the aspirational centre ”

  1. Bill 1

    Hmm. Since Jon Lansman and his cronies imposed a top down or centrist organisational model on Momentum, (and basically made the org an adjunct of the UK Labour Party) they seem to have, erm….lost momentum.

    I haven't been paying too much attention and definitely wouldn't expect to see much about Momentum and their efforts in any msm, but they don't appear to be getting any mention in independent media either.

    So I'm wondering…is it just possible that Jon Lansman is looking to maintain his track record of supporting those seen as being on Labour's left to defeat?

  2. pat 2

    As noted in the piece the UK has FPP and the election can be decided by a handful of (historically) marginal seats….assuming the youthquake continues the demographics of various seats becomes critical and my understanding is many (northern) former Labour strongholds have been hollowed out of their youth due to the lack of local opportunity….this is further complicated by the positions of the various parties re Brexit especially the LIBDems who have been saved from oblivion by Labours ambiguity.

    For the Tories to be beaten an awful lot of unlikely ducks are going to have to line up, youthquake or not

    • Gosman 2.1

      Yes, all any surge in the Youth vote may do (assuming the youth vote is overwhelmingly Labour supporters that is) is increase majorities in already safe Labour seats. Labour in the UK is not going to win it by increasing the people who vote for it in safe Labour seats. They need to convince people to support them in marginal Conservative seats and protect their own marginal seats from flipping.

  3. Gosman 3

    Nice theory. Unfortunately the reality is quite different. Corbyn did run a strong campaign in 2017. However he was up against May and she was absolutely appalling. There were a number of major cock ups from her, most notably around the aged care U-turn in which she manged to look both weak AND callous at the same time. Johnson and the Conservatives are being extremely careful not to make the same mistakes again. The polls are far better for them at the same stage in the election cycle. Corbyn will have to cause one of the biggest come from behind surges in British political history to get anywhere close to even being able to form a coalition government let alone win it outright.

    • McFlock 3.1

      The polls are far better for them at the same stage in the election cycle.

      2019 polling

      2018 polling

      Seems to me that the people doing "far better" are the lib dems. And what the tories might have slightly gained has been at the expense of UKIP.

      • Gosman 3.1.1

        Umm,.. at the comparable stage in the last election Labour had increased their vote from 25% to just under 35%. This time around they have only increased it to just over 30%. The Conservatives on the other hand were starting a steady decline in support from a high of 47% and were half way to 40%. This time they have been slightly increasing their vote from just under 40 to just over.

        • McFlock

          "comparable stage" – like a week out?

          The Conservatives on the other hand were starting a steady decline in support from a high of 47% and were half way to 40%. This time they have been slightly increasing their vote from just under 40 to just over.


          The polls are far better for them at the same stage in the election cycle.

          Labour's a couple of points down, but the lib dems are laughing away to the polls. Might be in government in a week.

  4. swordfish 4

    Entirely agree with your critique of the mythical significance of the "Centrist Voter".
    Crude cliche territory.

    But …

    In 2017 UK general election … the polls made various assumptions about turnout and which constituencies were marginal and likely to turn.

    Two years on what has been learnt? Many pollsters assume 2017 was a one off fluke, and again assume turnout for under 30s will be low.

    True for 2017 … but not for this Election.

    While it wasn’t the case across the board in 2017, it's true that a number of UK Pollsters like ComRes, ICM and Ipsos-MORI made the assumption that the young were less likely to vote and hence significantly weighted them down … and yep this certainly contributed to those polls greatly understating Labour support

    However, most companies employing those age-based turnout models immediately dumped them straight after the 2017 Election and went back to basing their turnout models primarily on how likely respondents say they are to vote.

    So now, when Pollsters do factor-in differences in likelihood to vote between age groups it's entirely down to people in some age groups telling pollsters they are less likely to vote than people in other age groups.

    Also note that when it comes to Pollsters making assumptions about "which constituencies were marginal and likely to turn" YouGov’s MRP model actually got things pretty much bang on in 2017.

    By modelling how different demographics vote in seats with different characteristics, and then applying that model to each constituency, MRP produces vote shares for each individual constituency and, via that, projects seat totals for each party. In 2017, YouGov’s MRP model projected a hung Parliament in 2017 when, of course, most pundits, as you say, were expecting a Tory majority.

    In contrast to 2 years ago, the 2019 YouGov MRP model is predicting an outright Tory majority.

    According to some (though by no means all) Pollsters, Labour's been closing the gap a little in recent weeks – which was predictable enough – but it's hard to see it drawing level or near-level with the Tories. Corbyn remains woefully unpopular (worst net favourability ratings for any Opposition Leader since polling began) … although his figures have started to improve during the campaign (as in 2017). The MSM / Establishment hatchet-job (most absurdly, the outrageous "anti-semitism" smears) has worked a treat,

    Polls are currently suggesting a large-ish minority (35-45%) of Leave supporters who voted Labour in 2017 are set to vote Tory (mainly) or Brexit Party (to a somewhat lesser extent) this Election. meanwhile a chunk of Labour Remainers are heading to the Lib Dems.

    Labour need to focus on encourging both core Lib Dems & Remainer Lab voters who have recently deserted to the LDs … to vote straegically in those marginal seats where the contest is clearly between the two Major Parties. Recent Lord Ashcroft Polling suggests a very large to overwhelming majority of intending LD voters would prefer a Corbyn-led Labour Govt over a Boris-led Tory one & a smaller majority agree that getting the right result (as they see it) on the EU question is more important than their favoured party (the LDs) doing well at this GE.

    So, there's plenty of potential there for Labour to encourage strategic voting by Remainers, while hopefully securing more Labour Brexiteer supporters by emphasising Social policy …

    … But very unlikely to be enough to overcome four years of relentless MSM-Establishment hostility (occasionally exacerbated by Corbyn's team shooting themselves in the foot needlessly).

    • pat 4.1

      have the anti semitism smears worked?…or is it something else.Was surprised to see Chief Rabbi going public…akin to Arch Bishop of Cant saying dont vote Tory…strange times

    • McFlock 4.2

      I suspect the appeal of the centrist voter myth is that it's essentially a double-value vote: one voter swinging from them to us is a change in the gap between us and them of two votes:

      • 100 voters, 50/50, a single swing vote changes the balance to 51/49.
      • 100 voters 50/50, an additional vote from the disenfranchised becomes 51/50 (which is only 50.4% vs 49.6%).

      So from a spreadsheet approach, effort/cash is better spent pursuing the swing votes you're positive are there.

      Except it's all an art not a science, and they might not be there at all.

  5. KJT 5

    The "centre" in reality looks like a proportion of voters, about 10%, who can be swayed into changing sides by memes such as "tough on crime" or single issues. Politicians spend their time propagandising, to appeal to these people, rather than the less easily swayed, majority.

    That is a problem with only being able to vote for the names of our revolving dictatorship, not, policies.

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