Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Who are the Corbynites? by Glen O'Hara

The Centre for Global Politics, Economy and Society hosted a recent one-day workshop around the theme of "Populism 2.0", at which Professor O'Hara present this paper.

Corbynism is a strong brand: indeed, paradoxically for a creed that makes a great deal of offering an entirely new economic and social sentiment, its presentation owes a great deal to the present vogue for ‘craft’ and ‘artisanal’ products. Apparently old but in reality new, and theoretically rough-and-ready while being highly packaged and marketable, its supporters and spinners have laboured long and hard to target an audience that then projects a positive image back on itself.

Some of the key elements of that brand have to do with the people attracted to it. The Corbyn appeal is often presented as particularly attractive to young people: idealistic students, passionate advocates for social change, political campaigners, twentysomethings locked out of the housing market. Media coverage of the 2017 General Election reinforced this impression: television images of large and enthusiastic crowds, often full of younger voters, played very (and unexpectedly) well on regional and local news programmes. When Labour did unexpectedly well at the ballot box, the newspapers were full of the ‘youthquake’ that had apparently taken place, with some very high figures for youth turnout doing the rounds.

There are a couple of reasons why this explanation instinctively appeals to us. The first is the rise of generational inequality. Income inequality, and even wealth inequity, has not risen very much in recent years: indeed, on some measures, it has declined a little. But the disparity of living standards (and especially the ownership of capital) between older and younger Britons has become an ever-more noticeable part of our collective life. Rising house prices, in particular, are still making the over-50s richer and richer (at least until they need social care in their 70s and 80s), while younger Britons struggle to get on the housing ladder.

The second reason that such a phenomenon seemed quite plausible was the outlook of young voters. Overwhelmingly for Remain in the 2016 European Union referendum, and just as likely to be socially liberal on a whole host of issues such as immigration, Prime Minister Theresa May’s search for a Brexit mandate – and conservative rhetoric from foxhunting to grammar schools – just became impossibly distant for younger voters who had backed David Cameron in far greater numbers just two years before.

Unfortunately for the mental shortcuts that we often use to assemble mythical knowledge, a great deal of that impression is simply inaccurate. There does not, for instance, seem to have been a ‘youthquake’ in terms of actual turnout. The authoritative British Election Study did not record any such move among young people, and although there has been some criticism of the Study’s techniques and sample sizes, these remain the best figures that we have. There was indeed a ‘youthquake’ in terms of a large swing towards Labour among 18- to 24-year olds, but this was matched and indeed probably exceeded by moves towards Corbyn’s party by voters in their later 20s and their 30s. According to Ipsos-Mori, the swing towards Labour even among 35- to 44-year olds (at eight per cent) was not far behind the ten per cent or so move among Britons in their late teens and early twenties.

Labour’s success among 25- to 44-year olds, of course a far larger group than students and early twentysomethings, speaks to much wider trends in contemporary Britain than can be captured via the concepts of housing scarcity and generational inequality. These literally middling Britons are often dealing with a multiplicity of crises: in health care, in their families, infrastructure, the welfare state. Cuts to school budgets, and the inadequacy of in particular England’s fragmented and inadequate social care system for looking after the elderly, often press in on voters facing care challenges for both their young children and their elderly parents: letters home from head teachers outlining the potential school-by-school effects of education cuts seem to have played an underrated role in the 2017 election campaign. Such voters are often forced to navigate complex lives, suffering frequent delays across Britain’s outdated transport infrastructure while taking children to different schools while being forced into unpaid and unwanted caring roles across both nuclear and extended families. Their resentment – that the Government simply does not seem to be there for them – played a much bigger role in Labour’s appeal than more discrete issues such as unpaid internships or university tuition fees.

Nor does the Labour membership appear to have become younger or more liberal. In fact, according to data gathered by the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project at Queen Mary, University of London, the average age of Labour’s members is 53 (as opposed to 57 among Conservatives). By contrast, only four per cent of Labour’s members are aged between 18 and 24. Labour’s membership has surged to over half a million since 2015, but its appeal appears to be disproportionately to graduates, left-leaning voters in London, the South and South-East of England, and to returning ex-members who found the Labour revisionism of the 1990s and 2000s not to their liking. There is little evidence here of a particularly millinerial surge in the party’s support base: the pro-Europeanism and social liberalism that do seem to form two key planks of Labour’s new energy seem to emanate from Baby Boomers and Generation Xers who hold these opinions.

‘The Corbynites’, like any political group, are not a homogenous tribe, though Labour’s new voters and members possess many traits in common. They tend to live in cities, particularly London, but they are also particularly noticeable amidst Southern England’s more radical university centres and faded seaside towns. They are, counterintuitively, not particularly young – and their attachment to Corbyn is focused on a wider rejection of the post-Thatcherite economic settlement than discourses of youthful radicalism, disengagement and campaigning assume. If the Conservatives think that they can counter this appeal via policies aimed only at the youngest voters, they are very mistaken indeed.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. A former journalist at The Independent, he contributes to a wide range of current affairs publications, including The New Statesman’s ‘Staggers’ online politics blog. He is the author of a series of books and articles on modern Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He will be discussing many of these themes in his inaugural Professorial Lecture, to be held at Oxford Brookes University on Wednesday 9 May.

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