The 2017 election could mark an unprecedented and remarkable divergence in the way different age groups vote. If the opinion polls are anything like accurate, the expected Conservative victory will be almost entirely the responsibility of voters over the age of 50. The polls suggest that Labour will be crushed when it comes to the over-50s, but the party may even beat the Conservatives among voters aged up to 49.
To illustrate the point, the Fabian Society compared YouGov polls carried out this month to a very large post-election survey the company conducted in 2015. In 2015 YouGov’s numbers suggest that Labour just pipped the Tories among the under-50s but lost by 14 points among the over-50s. Even on those results, the Fabians called it the most age-polarised election in living memory.
Now, in May 2017, four YouGov polls report an average 5 point lead to Labour among the under-50s and an extraordinary 37 point lead to the Conservatives among the over-50s. When you look at the 18 to 49 age group, the YouGov data shows that Labour have gained four percentage points since 2015; while the Tories are almost unchanged, up just on point. By contrast, among voters aged 50 and over Labour has lost 7 points of support and the Tories have gained 16 points.
Other polling companies don’t all show Labour actually leading among the younger half of voters, but they each report the same pattern of huge age polarisation. So, for Labour to maximise its vote in this election, it is clear that it has two key tasks.
First, the party must focus on turning-out people aged under 50, whose support for Labour remains pretty strong. This week, voter registration should be the priority, as the deadline for signing-up new electors draws near. Then the job is to make sure that every Labour sympathiser votes. For, although the polling for the under-50s is encouraging, we know that younger age groups are far less likely than middle-aged and older people to end up voting.
Second, Labour must reach out to voters over 50 who used to back the party. If YouGov’s figures are right, since 2015, the party’s reduced vote share among people aged 50 and over is equivalent to 1 million crucial votes. In dozens of seats, reaching out to these former supporters will be essential if Labour is to hold on. The Conservatives may end up with a commanding lead amongst the over-50s as a whole, but Labour must at least strive to win the votes of its 2015 supporters, whatever their age.
In other words, Labour must turn-out the under-50s and win back the over-50s. If Labour can succeed in both these tasks, then the party will face a less grim election night than many are expecting. But if it can’t, Labour’s current support in the opinion polls will not translate into the ballot box: the party will end up with far fewer votes than at the election defeats of 2010 and 2015.