Local elections 2018: Labour’s grey vote problems

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Today’s local elections are widely touted as being a sure-fire success story for the Labour Party, but demographic changes since 2014 suggest it may not be as simple as that.

Since 2017’s ill-fated election gamble, there has been little if any movement in the position of Labour and the Conservatives in the polls, with both parties appearing broadly neck and neck in voting intention figures and both with unpopular leaders. Many on Labour’s side are excited therefore about today’s local elections. Not only are they the first electoral test of the party since their impressive election campaign last year, but being focussed in urban areas they should deliver a good news cycle for the party. This urban/rural divide however obscures some of the complexities of the changes facing these areas.

In many ways the story of last year’s general election was a story of demographics; younger voters, with higher educational attainment and in urban areas were more likely to vote Labour. Conversely, older voters and those with lower educational attainment were more likely to vote Conservative.

The last local elections held in the areas that are going to the ballot box today was back in 2014, before the UK voted to leave the EU and before Theresa May was Prime Minister. As well as it being a politically very different world to then, demographically the areas voting have gone through some big changes. The below chart shows what proportion of the population increase since 2014 can be explained by changes per age group in the local authorities voting today.

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Source: ONS population estimates; author’s calculations

Labour’s near whitewash of London (specifically inner-London) is well documented and can perhaps be explained by the above chart, with the group seeing the greatest increase in the capital being those aged 35-44 (accounting for 60% of population growth). This idea supports the notion that London has not become an inherently more Labour-leaning place in recent years but rather the results are because the age of the capital’s population. The corollary of this is that some more traditional areas of Labour support, such as northern cities and former industrial centres, are seeing the opposite trend, which may not benefit Labour.

For the areas voting today outside of London, the greatest increase is amongst older groups, for example amongst those just retired; 66% of population increases in the non-London areas is explained by those aged 65-74. While the crude London vs. non-London distinction is helpful to a certain extent, it masks demographic complexities in key election battlegrounds. In Sheffield, for example, the age group which has seen the greatest increase is those aged 25-34, compared to those aged 65-74 in Barnsley (46% and 34% of the population change respectively).

Whether or not memories of the Conservative’s manifesto pledge to change social care will affect the party’s performance amongst the key ‘grey vote’ in today’s local elections remains to be seen. However it does look like some of Labour’s traditional heartlands of support have changed in their demographics since the last local elections of 2014. Although many of the councils being elected today are being elected in portions and coming from a high base of Labour support, most likely resulting in minimal change, the demographic ground appears to be shifting beneath Labour’s feet. In the same way that last year’s general election ran rough shot over much perceived electoral wisdom, Labour’s reliance on these traditional heartlands (e.g. Barnsley) looks to be something that the party may not be able to take for granted in the future.

Dan Holden
Research Fellow
ILC-UK

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