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Voting intention

The analysis on this website illustrates a number of large differences in values and priorities between generations in Britain.  This presents an obvious challenge for political parties that want to appeal across the whole population – and each of the major parties has struggled to strike a balance in recent times:  for example, the Conservatives have grappled with the variety of views on gay marriage and to an extent on Europe; Labour are arguably facing similar challenges on welfare. 

 

 

Generational factors are by no means the only drivers of this diversity of opinion, but our analysis suggests they are often important.  

 

To add to the generational understanding of political support, we have analysed Ipsos MORI trend data on voting intention, going back to 1996.  We’ve followed through individual generations over a 17 year period in the first example of this type of analysis on our data.  This is based on a total dataset including more than half a million interviews.  

 

 

The data here are based on the actual responses to one of our voting questions: figures have not been re-based to exclude don’t knows, or to take into account the answers that the “don’t knows” give us to the follow-up questions; nor have we applied our usual filter for certainty to vote.  The figures are therefore somewhat different from the published “headline” voting intention figures you will see in the media, but they provide a fuller representation of the data.  

 

And the analysis shows some remarkable patterns.  The first point that stands out is the very different generational pattern in support for the two main parties, as shown in the charts below.  Throughout much of the period covered here, there have been significant and consistent gaps between the generations on levels of support for the Conservative party, but very little difference between the proportions of each generation supporting Labour.   This echoes previous work that has shown that Conservative vote has historically been more differentiated by age than Labour.1
 

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There have been a series of fierce debates over the years on whether these differences are due to cohort or lifecycle effects – and, as we’ve outlined, it is impossible to fully determine this, given both are inter-related and confounded with period effects.  The most reasonable conclusion seems to be that both ageing and cohort effects are present, to varying degrees depending on the party and context.  Our own data provides some evidence of this “bit of both” conclusion.2

 

But still, this simple analysis raises some clear questions and concerns for the two main parties.  

 

First, on the Conservatives, the very wide generational divide and strict hierarchy in support in the late 1990s and early 2000s is not a pattern that a party would want to see.  Support was being held up by a pre-war generation that was dying out – and there were very low levels of support among the youngest cohort.  Up to 2006, at least, there were no signs that their strength among the baby boomer generation was catching up with their strength among the pre-war group, which would be necessary if the party was to maintain its traditional advantage among the oldest age groups. This period did not look good for the long-term sustainability of Conservative support.

 

However, there is an important change in the generational pattern post-2007, with a significant and sustained narrowing in the generational divide in the Conservative vote.  There were a number of changes that coincide with this that may help explain the changing pattern, but it is likely that the start of the economic crisis and the change of Prime Minister to Gordon Brown may have been particularly important.


By the first quarter of 2013 the generational pattern is very different: there is now only a 5 percentage point gap in Conservative support between the oldest and youngest cohorts, a stark contrast to 2005/6 when there was a 20 percentage point gap.  There is also now no difference at all between Conservative support among generation Y and the two cohorts that precede them.  

 

This is a major shift – but it has both pros and cons for the Conservatives.  

 

A positive reading is that the Tories have continued to maintain support in absolute terms among generation Y, even while overseeing an austerity government and an economic response where young people face particularly harsh conditions (with an unemployment rate of around 21% compared with 8% across all age groups).  This will be heartening for the Conservatives: it provides some basis to argue that modernising of the party is working with some young people, although it should be noted Conservative support among the young is still low relative to Labour, as shown in the chart below.  

 

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Further, the narrowing of the generational gap in the Conservative vote has been driven as much by falling support in traditionally strong generations as this increase in support among generation Y.  The pre-war generation’s support for the Conservatives peaked at around 33% in 2008, but by the first quarter of 2013 it was down to 24%.  Support among the other two generations has fallen too, with baby boomers dropping 7 percentage points from the peak and generation X dropping 5 percentage points.  

 

This should be a significant concern for the Conservative party: losing this core vote is not an ideal way to close a generational gap, particularly given differential turnout between generations.  As the table below shows, generation Y were under-represented in the 2010 election, as young age groups tend to be, while the baby boomer and pre-war generation together made up six in ten of voters.  


   Proportion of
 adult population 2010  
 Modelled Turnout     Proportion of votes  
cast 2010 
Generation Y   22 49  16 
Generation X  24 63  25 
Baby Boomers   34 71 36 
 Pre-war  20 76  23 

The overall generational pattern for Labour support is very different, as the earlier chart shows.  There is very little difference between the cohorts for much of the period, although generation x and baby boomers were consistently slightly more likely to be Labour supporters than other generations in the early Blair years.  The overall pattern of declining support from an historic high in 1997 is not particularly encouraging – but the consistency of support across generations does at least show a wide-ranging appeal across age groups.  Somewhat ironically, Labour’s recent “One Nation” narrative very effectively reflected their consistent appeal across generations for much of the period – but it seems less true now.

 

Indeed, there are signs of a significant generational dispersal of Labour support in the last 2-3 years, again with  support among generation Y increasing and pre-war support decreasing, particularly in 2013.  You get a better idea of the relative position between the parties among this pre-war generation in the chart below.


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These generational trends are therefore not very comforting for Labour either.  While generation Y support is up, it is only returning to levels already seen in the mid-2000s, and they are the only generation among which support is now higher than it was in 2005, when Labour last won a general election.  But it is the recent decline in support among the pre-war generation that looks most worrying: this is only based on one quarter of 2013, so could be a blip rather than a trend, but it is electorally important, for the same reasons as with the Conservatives.


The generational patterns in the Liberal Democrat vote are outlined in the chart below, and they show less variation in absolute terms.  The Lib Dems did have slightly higher support among the baby boomers until the mid-2000s, but this has fallen back.  The most notable pattern in recent times is the spike in support among generation Y at the 2010 election, which quickly collapsed. This no doubt partly reflects enthusiasm for the party and for Nick Clegg among the student population ahead of the 2010 election, with the sharp drop that followed the election likely to be related to the changing position of the party on tuition fees.


In the most recent data, Lib Dem support is at record low levels for this period, and this is a very consistent picture across generations.  

 

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While there are huge differences between the Conservatives and Labour in their generational patterns they do share two consistent trends in recent years: both have seen an increase in support among generation Y and both have seen a decline in the proportions of the pre-war generation among their supporters.  

 

This raises two questions: where have the generation Y supporters come from, and where have the pre-war voters gone?  

 

The decline in the Lib Dem vote among younger people seen above will be part of the explanation for the first shift – but so too will the pattern seen in the chart below.  

 

This outlines the proportion saying they are undecided in how they would vote.  All generations track extremely closely throughout the period covered, except generation Y, where a much greater proportion were undecided for much of the period, but converged on the average in the run-up to the 2010 election.  This is very consistent with political lifecycle theories, where people take some time (and important elections such as the one in 2010) to settle down into their party of choice.3

 

This chart also provides some explanation for the second pattern, as we have seen a spike in the pre-war generation who say they are now undecided on how to vote.  This is only a 6 percentage point increase on 2011, but mirrors the decline in both Tory and Labour vote among this cohort.

 

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A further explanation of where pre-war voters have gone is provided by UKIP. The rapid rise of UKIP means we do not have sufficient data over a long enough period to accurately track the generational profile of UKIP voters, but the table below does show that in the first quarter of 2013 11% of this generation now say they will vote for UKIP.  This has risen from extremely low levels in the space of the last 4-5 years.

 

Proportion of GB adults intending to vote for UKIP 
(simple question only, not rebased), January-March 2013



 All   7% 
 Pre-war 11% 
 Baby boomers 9% 
 Generation X 5% 
 Generation Y 2% 


Overall then the pre-war generation seem particularly likely to be a key battleground for the main two parties in the next election.  A significant minority of what each could count on as core support from this generation seem disillusioned with the main parties, believing that their concerns are not being addressed.  

 

But there is also a longer-term battle for generation Y support that each party needs to bear in mind.  This generation may be less vital to the electoral outcome in 2015 – but they will make up a few percentage points more of the electorate, and their turnout levels could well increase too.  Our final chart from the Ipsos MORI dataset shows this turnout level will partly depend on the context of the election, and in particular how closely fought it is.

 

The chart below shows changes in the proportions saying they would not vote across the different generations.  Older generations don’t shift very much during our period – the pre-war generation are the least likely to say they wouldn’t vote, with the baby boomer generation next.  The important point is that both these generations stay flat throughout the period: propensity to say you’re going to vote does not seem to be related to the context of the election among these generations.  

 

It is, however, a different pattern for the younger generations, particularly generation Y.  There is a significant hump for generation X and generation Y, where the proportions saying they would not vote increases following the 1997 election and does not come down again until the 2010 election.  A greater proportion of the younger generations seem relatively uninterested by the elections in 2001 and 2005 – which is consistent with younger voters being more likely to be ambivalent about voting where they think little is at stake or that their vote is not needed as the election outcome is in little doubt .  This reflects other research, which shows that the competitive context is a particularly important driver of political engagement among the young, where early experiences of close fought elections affect not only immediate voting levels but can continue to affect levels of participation in future elections.4

 

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This generational analysis therefore presents a number of challenges for political parties and political engagement more broadly.  We will never be able to definitively identify how much of these patterns are generational, related to age or driven by the particular context.  But in many ways that’s not the most important point.  What is clear is that after a period of relative generational predictability we’re now seeing big changes in the political allegiances of different generations. It is vital to the electoral success of the parties and for political participation generally that this big shift is recognised.  However, the risk is that this leads to a short-term response, and a narrow focus on a dissatisfied and uncharacteristically undecided pre-war generation.  The key longer-term challenge is finding a way to appeal across the generations and narrow the unusually large gap in political engagement between the youngest and oldest that we have in the UK.

 

See discussion in Tilley, J Political Generations and Partisanship in the UK 1964-1997 in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Vol 165 No 1 (2002)
2 More detailed analysis on age vs cohorts forthcoming
Milbrath, L. W. Political Participation: How and why do people get involved in politics (Chicago, 1965) p.134
Political Socialization in Context: The Effect of Political Competition on Youth Voter Turnout in Political Behaviour, Vol 30 No 1 (2008)
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Bobby Duffy

Bobby Duffy

Managing Director
Social Research Institute
Ipsos MORI


Visiting Senior Research Fellow

King's College London

 

020 7347 3000

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