What did Theresa May think she was playing at? She had just come from Buckingham Palace, but the prime minister’s tone on Wednesday, as she accused Brussels of a dastardly (if imaginary) plot to influence the general election, was more Churchill emerging from a war cabinet. All that was missing, as she parked her tank firmly on European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s lawn, was a burst of national anthem and a Spitfire flying overhead.
It’s breathtakingly cynical stuff – if you want the EU to stay out of domestic elections, don’t make them all about the EU – which can only make future negotiations more difficult. But don’t underestimate how much they’ll cheer in the places it was intended to be heard: golf club bars and Daily Mail-reading households; stout shire villages; and fading seaside towns still drawn to Ukip. This was a speech for Clacton and Skegness, for people old enough to remember a time when we managed fine outside the EU.
Let the second battle of Britain commence! And while it’s easy to mock, it’s harder for the left to counter because much of it appeals to a certain kind of older Labour voter too: highly patriotic, worried about immigration, inclined to see Brexit as a chance for Britain to stand tall again, and bewildered by Jeremy Corbyn. The quickest way to understand what May is doing is often to imagine how it sounds to a much older person, because that’s where the centre of politics is moving. Britain is ageing, and the older it gets, the further to the right it’s shifting.
Not every pensioner is Alf Garnett. But YouGov calculates that for every 10 years older people get, their likelihood of voting Tory rises 8% – which helps explain why fewer than one in five people aged 65 to 75 (and fewer than one in 10 over-75s) identify as Labour. Anyone who doesn’t grasp why that matters has forgotten the lesson from Brexit: grey power is amplified by older people’s greater propensity to vote.
Adjusting for this habit, one analysis for the charity Age UK predicts that over half of parliamentary seats might have a “grey majority” (more than half of those voting being over 55) by 2025. Pensioners would cast at least a third of votes in more than 466 seats, and the majority of votes in 39 seats.
The rock-solid Tory seat of Christchurch, in Dorset, is a microcosm of how that may play out. One in three residentsof this harbour town are retired – the highest number of pensioners of any constituency in Britain. The pace of life is slow here but sprightly; elderly dog-walkers pause to admire each other’s labradors by the quayside, and the nail bar hums with immaculate grey-haired customers. The knitting shop, golf store and library chess club suggest people with time and money to indulge hobbies.
It’s less chichi than some south coast resorts – Poundland is busy – but life expectancy is high, and it’s a vision of retirement as many would love it to be, comfortable and safe, in a civic-minded place offering little chance to get lonely. The only cloud on the horizon is a large hole in Dorset county council’s social care budget.
Yet comfort doesn’t invariably equal smugness. May’s refusal to guarantee George Osborne’s generous “triple lock” on pensions looks, on paper, like a weakness that Labour can exploit (they’re pledged to keep the lock). But on the streets of Christchurch it makes more sense. Older people here are more alert to their relative good fortune over the last decade – which saw wages squeezed while pensions rose, leaving retired households better off on average than working ones – than many are.
“I think pensioners are quite well off, really,” says 76-year-old Janet, when asked if she would mind smaller pension rises in future. Her friend Janice, 73, agrees: “I think we’re lucky, because we don’t have mortgages.” And as 83-year-old Irene points out, there’s the winter fuel payment. All three live in a nearby village and used their free bus passes to pop in for cinema tickets. “We’ve been careful all our lives, and now we’re making the most of it,” adds Janet.
Like two-thirds of Christchurch, they all voted to leave the EU, and will back May this June. “She’s strong, like another Maggie,” says Janet, although she adds quickly that Thatcher wasn’t always right.
They’re more willing than the young to support raising tax, because they remember what life was like before the NHS
It would be ridiculous to expect relatively wealthy towns like this ever to swing to Labour, of course. But the point is that an ageing Britain will produce more Christchurches. It’s not just south coast retirement havens that are ageing rapidly but swaths of the Midlands, Essex, Yorkshire and Humberside, Norfolk. Even key marginal towns like Corby or Milton Keynes are noticeably greying. Almost three-quarters of the Labour-held “grey marginals” identified by Age UK in 2009 have since changed hands.
Age isn’t the only reason the party struggles in market towns, rural areas and suburbs, but it’s a factor, and Jeremy Corbyn’s generous proposals on pensions and social care – including compensation for women hit by rising retirement age – may not be enough when neither issue enters older voters’ top three priorities. They’re more exercised by immigration, which may help explain why Tory voters who once defected to Ukip are visibly returning to the fold while Labour’s lost sheep hang back.
Yet all is not lost. Older voters still identify remarkably closely with Labour’s core, communitarian values. They’re more willing than the young to support raising tax, not least because they remember what life was like before the NHS, and they believe in sacrifice for the public good.
May is talking Labour’s language on industrial strategy, or curbing corporate excess, precisely because older voters like it. Their differences with the party aren’t economic but cultural and social, and buried in Labour’s campaign for the West Midlands mayoralty was the beginnings of a strategy for addressing that.
The city of Birmingham used to make Spitfires. A vast factory in Castle Bromwich churned out hundreds of planes a month, barely stopping even when the Luftwaffe bombed the plant.
The city built Lancasters too, and later Land Rovers in Solihull and Minis in Longbridge, but all the time it was building something bigger: an identity, rooted in its long industrial history, based on making things. Birmingham’s economy may have moved on now, but it’s this manufacturing history that resonates still with older voters. “They want to hear,” says the Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill Liam Byrne, “that their working lives were not in vain.” Which is why Siôn Simon’s mayoral campaign mixed nostalgic images of Spitfires with the high-speed rail project it’s hoped will bring jobs in the future.
At the time of writing, it’s unclear whether such appeals to civic pride and “taking back control” from Westminster were enough. But this is perhaps the beginning, not the end, of a conversation with older working-class voters.
Labour can’t bring back second world war fighter planes, or the heyday of mass manufacturing, and there is much about the past that no progressive should revive. But the party can promise to train aircraft factory workers’ grandchildren for well-paid engineering jobs, using language that celebrates the past and emphasises the continuity between generations.
It could build on its postwar legacy, evoke good things lost from national life, and raid its archives for enduring symbols; it could try to go grey with grace. It won’t be easy. But as ever with ageing, it sure beats the alternative.