It's the Boomers 'Wot Won It'

The sign says no right turn, but the UK did it anyway. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Years ago, after a surprising Conservative victory in a British election, the Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid took credit for the win with the headline "It's The Sun Wot Won It." Versions of it have been used ever since. While many are complaining that the media had a big role to play in the recent British election, it was really the cranky boomers and seniors wot won it.

Three and a half years ago, after Vote Leave won the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and before the election of Donald Trump, I noted that the referendum "scratched a scab of underlying resentment in older, rural and suburban, poorer and less educated voters against the successful cities, against globalism, and most importantly, against immigration."

I thought it was a preview of what might happen in the American election, "the complete surprise shocker revolution of the older generations, the boomers and seniors." Which is exactly what happened.

Now Boris Johnson has won what he calls "a huge great stonking mandate," winning seats that have been Labour strongholds for 80 years. These were known as the "Red Wall," the former coal and steel and manufacturing areas of the country.

voter split
Look at the split between young and old voters. Lord Ashcroft Polls

And once again, it all comes down to demographics. The older, poorer voters outside of the big cities voted overwhelmingly Conservative; young people mostly voted Labour. Lord Ashcroft polls found that "Labour won more than half the vote among those turning out aged 18-24 (57%) and 25-34 (55%), with the Conservatives second in both groups. The Conservatives were ahead among those aged 45-54 (with 43%), 55-64 (with 49%) and 65+ (with 62%)."

The U.K. is still very class-conscious, and the Labour Party was the natural home of the working class, while the Conservatives were home to the upper and professional classes. Note the bottom four bars: AB are managerial, professional, administrative while DE are semi and unskilled, casual and lowest grade workers and the unemployed. They are all within a few percentage points of each other. Class now matters far less than age.

These were people who voted Labour for generations. Why did they switch? Professor David Runciman tells the New Yorker that the Labour Party is no longer the party of labour, just as in the United States, the Democrats are no longer the party of the working man in Ohio or Pennsylvania.

It is the party of university graduates, of big cities, and of young people, and the other crucial thing that will emerge when people break down the vote in this election is that there is here, as there was in the Brexit vote and the Trump election, a big, big generational divide. ... we are learning with every one of these elections that younger voters will consistently be outvoted by people over the age of forty-five.

In fact, there are now more millennials than there are baby boomers, but as Byrne Hobart notes, boomers show up to vote. "They’ll be the largest voting cohort for a while yet. Presidential election turnout was 70% for people over 60, compared to 46% for people under 30."

Or as Runciman concludes,

The central demographic fact of Western democracy is that there aren’t enough young people, and whoever is taking on Trump needs to focus on the crucial fact that we are the first societies in human history where the old outnumber the young.

As we have noted before, the old tend to be more conservative. Of course, this is a latte-sipping urban university graduate writing here; I may not be happy with these results but obviously the biggest group of voters (not a majority) in the U.K. are, and lots of Americans are happy with their president. As Steve Bannon tells Roger Cohen in The New York Times,

"Johnson foreshadows a big Trump win. Working-class people are tired of their 'betters' in New York, London, Brussels telling them how to live and what to do .... If Democrats don't take the lesson, Trump is headed for a Reagan-like '84 victory."
Justin Trudeau
Justin Trudeau says whew, that was close!. SEBASTIEN ST-JEAN/AFP via Getty Images

Eventually, the inevitable demographic change will catch up. We recently saw this in Canada, where a tarnished Justin Trudeau entered the election after a series of major scandals. It really was Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's election to lose, and he did so by toeing a socially conservative line and downplaying the climate crisis in a way that turned off the urban voters. Scheer won all the rural ridings with older, whiter voters, along with the Western oil producing provinces tied to the dying petro-economy, but the majority of the country now lives in the cities.

The USA, with its Electoral College, gerrymandered districts and voter suppression, will take a little longer to change, but it is coming and it is inevitable.