Why Young At Heart Middle Aged Voters Mean Bad News For Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak's party is in trouble.
Rishi Sunak's party is in trouble.

Rishi Sunak's party is in trouble.

In the past few weeks quite a lot has been written about how the Tories are losing the young. For anyone under 30, voting Tory is as counter-cultural as a fondness for Val Doonican. But that’s not the only bad news.

A recent major survey my firm - Portland Communications, using a very large sample of over 8,000 UK adults - reveals that this malaise is not just among the young. This spells potential huge trouble for the Conservative Party.

On a series of issues that we surveyed, the views of middle-aged people are now much closer to their children than their parents. And by middle-aged we do not mean only those seeing the first touch of grey or buying their first home.

Getting down with the kids, attitudinally-speaking, is now something which even those deep into their fifth or sixth decades are doing. To put it in dramatic terms, Terry and June are no more.

On a range of issues, the views of 45 to 59-year-olds are much more like the young or the population overall than they are to those aged 60 and over.

On LGBTQ+ rights, just 48% see this as an issue which is important, compared to 62% of the next cohort down the age scale and 64% of 18-24-year-olds. On whether they feel “proud” to be British, just 58% of 35 to 59-year-olds say they are, compared to 70% of the 60+ age group. On re-joining the EU, 39% of 45 to 59-year-olds say they would vote against it while 56% of those aged 60 and over are still Brexiteers.

Asked to place themselves on a political scale, more of our middle-aged forty and fifty-somethings said they were liberal (31%) than said they were conservative (20%). That was the other way round for the 60-plus (27% conservative, 22% liberal).

In a sign that even more trouble is being stored up for the future, the deficit is greater for conservatives vs liberals in the 35 to 44-year-olds group with a liberal vs conservative score of 37% vs 17%.

And it is not just the more attitudinal issues where drivers of Tory support are fading among those in later middle-age. The same goes for crunchier topics.

The cost-of-living crisis is impacting 45 to 59-year-olds - less likely to be mortgage-free, more likely to still have children living at home than those aged 60-plus. In the oldest group, only 24% said their financial situation was unchanged on a year ago, compared to 32% of those aged 60 and over.

Sixty-seven per cent of those aged 45-59 said they were worse off than a year ago, compared to only 60% of the 60-plus group. And those in middle-age are much less likely to count their blessings than the oldest. Only 43% of 35 to 59-year-olds say they are better off than their parents were at their age, compared to 61% of those aged 60 and over. The middle-aged are also much more likely to see supporting public services other than the NHS than the 60-plus group as important when asked to select three priorities that political leaders should address over the next year.

These short-term effects help provide an explanation for what another recent poll found - that the drop in Tory support since the 2019 general election has been steepest of all age groups at 27 percentage points among voters aged 50 to 59. But even though economic pain is causing real misery at the moment, the economy works in cycles. At some point - one hopes – the good times will return.

The same does not go for cultural, attitudinal shifts. These are like the political climate, while economics is more like the weather. The British Election Study graphs of the last three elections, and many elections before that, show a steady increase in the Tory vote as people get older - and a decline in Labour support. Without the “grey” vote, lumping the middle-aged in with those much older, there would not have been Tories in government since 2010.

But if this coalition of the merely-getting-on-a-bit and the wrinkly is in the process of breaking down, then that spells doom for the Tories.

The Conservatives won a majority in 2015 with just a quarter of the 18-24-year-old vote, fewer than half of whom bothered to turn out anyway. But the much bigger win in 2019 was greatly helped by winning half the 55 to 64-year-old group. And they vote in much larger numbers too.

A lot has been said recently about the collapse of Tory support among the young. Childcare and house-building have been identified as key issues which need to be addressed if this is to be put right - which may well be the case. But both are fiendishly difficult and expensive to do much about. And a bigger and more pressing danger might be losing support among those, like this author, who are no longer in their first flush of youth.

The cultural shift that we appear to be seeing in this group suggests that turning to the Tory fundamentals of faith and flag is not going to cut the mustard in retaining this group. They are staying younger for longer in terms of attitudes.

Full-throated culture war is, as ever, a political dead end. But there will be policy and political options which Tory strategists should consider. And there are things which pose a further threat – such as the mooted rise in the retirement age which will come as a deeply unpleasant surprise to those in this group with carefully-constructed retirement plans. Labour will see this as a development they could do the Tories real damage on.

But rather like how Radio 2 has had to update its playlist and replace Val Doonican with Britpop, the middle-aged are not who they used to be. Their tastes, views and perceptions have changed.

Gabriel Milland is a partner and leads the research team at Portland Communications