Sunday 17 November 2019

The Problem with Old People

It was a modest sized bungalow. A fresh extension had been added to the side of the house and the occupant, a woman in her late 60s to early 70s, beckoned us across the astroturf lawn to her patio doors. "I'll be voting Tory this time", she said. "We need to get Brexit done." Picking at her reasoning, it was the bickering of politicians that annoyed her the most. And when we moved on to policy issues her eyes glazed over and spoke the following remarkable words: "the country has never been so prosperous." At that point we decided time was best spent on someone else's doorstep and we moved off. This brief chat typified two things: it underlined Labour's old people problem and speaks to the single political success of the Cameron government's time in power - the insulation of retirees from the pressures facing the rest of the population.

Naturally, we're not talking about all older people. But poll after poll, election after election, and country after country shows a pronounced bias among the old to right wing parties. And this is especially acute when we talk about hard right populist insurgencies, like the Brexit Party here, the AfD in Germany, FN in France and so on. Why? Is this simply an expression of the old adage that you tend to get more conservative as you grow older? No.

As this blog has discussed many times, the age split in voting intentions across the Western world is an expression of a class cohort effect. The fact the younger you are, the more socially liberal you're more likely to be is less a consequence of "multicultural lefty crap", as the thankfully former Tory MP Aidan Burley once put it, but a cultural mutation in the class composition of the advanced capitalist societies. Without going too far down this particular rabbit hole (much more here and here), it will suffice to say that as the state expanded in the post-war years millions of workers were drawn into employment whose object was the reproduction of capitalist social relations themselves. Education, health, social services, the civil service generally, local government were the main areas of growth. The character of this work centred on the engineering of human beings, the combination of socialising them and patching them up. As deindustrialisation started taking hold and neoliberal capitalism emerged from the rubble of the class battles of the 1980s, not only were these services contracted out, the market also started intervening more directly in the engineering of subjectivities. Consumer capitalism was already well practised at selling lifestyles, but as the service sector expanded and industry upped sticks the provision of services became increasingly central to the accumulation of capital. What mattered less was the brute physicality of the human body and more the subtle intricacies of our competencies as social beings, but not just any way of being: the kind of agreeable personality able to get on with and relate to people from a diversity of backgrounds. There are two consequences that flow from this. Social liberalism is less a matter of "propaganda" as the far right maintains, but a tolerance arising spontaneously from the everyday existence of tens of millions of people. And secondly, the younger someone is the more likely their career is or will be characterised by the immaterial, social labour. Therefore it stands to reason younger people are going to relate better to parties that embody those values, while the reverse is true of those coming to the end of their working lives or are retired. This is something the so-called Blue Labour tendency recognises, but thinks we should tail the prejudices and fading peccadilloes of the old and abandoning social liberalism for, at best, a studied neutrality with respect to their propensity to conservatism. A position that would destroy the Labour Party in less than a generation.

The second issue is the problem of property. Value congruence is only one part of the explanation for the polarisation of politics along age lines. The apparent conservatising effect of age is not some essentialist feature of the life course, but a consequence of acquiring property. It used to go something like this. You start off in life after school with a job. And as you get older, you and your partner acquire a house, cars, kids, has a modest sum saved in the bank for a rainy day, and by retirement you're set with a liveable pension combining occupational and state schemes, and a few assets acquired over a life time of graft. If you're under 50, you know this fiction is not the case. One of the biggest problems the Tories are facing is how property acquisition is eroding, which is one of the processes driving the party's long-term decline. The Tories are visibly and obviously a barrier to the modest aspirations of increasing numbers of working people. And one of the reasons they cannot address this is because high property prices and the proliferation of renting is very much in the interests of their coalition of older voters. For among the ranks of retirees are a not inconsiderable number of petty landlords who rent out their old family homes or other properties. Therefore keeping them sweet and onside means screwing younger workers, even if the price the party will pay is their decreasing political viability in the medium to long-term. And it also means this constituency are not about to support Labour who are pledged, perversely, to getting the cycle of property acquisition moving again alongside curbs on private renting and the building of good quality council housing.

Not unrelated to property is the declassing experience of retirement itself, which is simultaneously individuating, disempowering, and lumpenising. Going from arranging your life around the need to earn a wage a salary to not can be wrenching, and leaves the retired to find purpose in other things. For some it might be the near full-time pursuit of hobbies, but often the consequences can be social withdrawal and isolation. No wonder old age loneliness is at epidemic levels. Whatever the case the freedom from work, or at least working full-time, affords a certain freedom and the inclination to do as one pleases. In a society such as ours where the individual is formally sovereign, independent, and therefore the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong, retirement approaches this neoliberal ego ideal. This declassing is something David Cameron understood at an instinctive level. "Protecting" older people from his government's cuts programme wasn't a charitable move but an astute political one. Dave knew that ensuring pensions rose while exempting older people in public housing from the bedroom tax, cuts to council tax and changes to income support insulated them (to a degree) from his attack on government spending, and therefore the pressures borne from the rest of the population. Further, because pensioners are on fixed incomes and atomised, they - like small business people - are prone to social anxieties. The reason the right wing press pump out the most ludicrous scare stories and are happy to abet the Tories in doing so is because it speaks to a structurally anxious social location, and they lap it up. Hence also the tendency to the punitive and the scapegoat. The right are past masters in condensing intangible fears around groups of undesirables, and and satisfying them by being seen to give them a good kicking and making their lives a misery. The hostile environment, for example, is part and parcel of this formula. Labour, especially under Jeremy Corbyn, is also a bogeyman that fits this political typing to a tee. The spending plans conjure up the mythologised Winter of Discontent, the foreign policy an Operation Sea Lion rerun with Jihadists and bolshevised Brussels bureaucrats, and any hint of making life better for working people a concession to snowflakery and idleness.

This situation, of the old effectively turning against the young, is not natural. It is a situation arrived at by policy decisions, and cynically sustained by the Tories and the powerful forces they act for. The question is how to turn this around? And the answer is ... not before election day. Strong campaigning by Labour and using all means, such as getting younger relatives to lean on the old, can make a small difference. As could targeted anti-Tory campaigning aimed at suppressing their vote. But we're talking about sustained effort over years in government. To turn the situation around for the old takes more than just banging on about saving the NHS, they have to see tangible improvements when they visit. The restoration of public transport (particularly buses) and a rebooted Post Office network can be parts of a strategy to break down isolation and dislocation. Opening FE and HE to lifelong education can encourage retirees to enter education, sometimes for the first time, would also build social cohesion and make the world appear less threatening and strange. And Labour's plan to break up private media monopolies would stymie the pipeline of poison that keeps pensioners frightened, weary, and anxious.

Again, it's worth reiterating that this can't be short circuited. Labour's old people problem does not go away if we pander to the concerns articulated by the right wing press, nor allow the Tories to set the terms of debate, nor water down while half-apologising for our programme. The only way to win over the old and disrupt the grip the Tories have on pensioners is by explicitly saying we are the party for everyone, and with the policies to match. And they know, the right know that if we get in and start removing the bases of pensioner anxiety, their long-term decline will speed up.


Unknown said...

I'm not sure that these attitudes are due to age per se. I'm 75. I class myself as educated working class - went to grammar school/ uni in the 60s, various other degrees later on, a lifetime of discussion and learning. For my generation this is rare. For the upcoming generations, it won't be. These things take time. For me the idea of my children's futures being decided by the ignorant is scary.

If you were me you would have my views said...

"but a cultural mutation in the class composition of the advanced capitalist societies."

To paraphrase a Samir Amin joke, where is the British working class? China!

"the kind of agreeable personality able to get on with and relate to people from a diversity of backgrounds"

A key quality of all con men, or should that be con people!

Blissex said...

«It was a modest sized bungalow. A fresh extension [...] "the country has never been so prosperous."»

Translating into coarse english for you: "the valuation of my bungalow has never been higher".

«Again, it's worth reiterating that this can't be short circuited. [...] win over the old and disrupt the grip the Tories have on pensioners»

As perhaps other commenters have noticed I call this the mass-rentierism problem, and while I agree that retirement makes individualistic orientations stronger, I think that the key for the political success of mass-rentierism has been the enormity of the property gains on which it is based: the £30,000-£40,000 a year of work-free (and usually tax-free) gains are something that cannot be matched by Labour or the trade unions.

So what to do with proprietors who in their old age are sitting on half million to a million of capital gains and expect more, much more?

«is by explicitly saying we are the party for everyone, and with the policies to match.»

The New Labour offer was to promise them both more, much more, and much more securely, pointing out that the Conservatives had let property prices crash for several years in the 1990s, and that they had "abolished the cycle", leading to a "permanent" property boom. That promise shattered in 2008-2009, so it is hard to still be a "centrist" and be believed by property-obsessed voters.

My impression is that a good chunk of older proprietors actually value security more than the size of the gains, having lived through two property crashes, and that Labour can offer good, government guaranteed pensions, for everybody, austrian-style, and that secure, ever growing property prices are a mirage. That might resonate with their experience of those two crashes.

Tasker Dunham said...

I don't know why they - or we I'm 70 - don't see how f'ing unfair things are. When I go to the hairdressers, frequented by many others of similar age, I have to keep my mouth shut. You don't argue with someone holding scissors to you head.

Boffy said...

You go to the hairdressers? For goodness sake man, a pair of scissors or a JML haircutter will do the job. As my grandad used to say "there's only a week's difference between a good haircut and a bad 'un."

Boffy said...

There are plenty of old folk who don't own their own homes, and yet who have reactionary views. Nor are those reactionary views something they have acquired in retirement as a result of becoming declassed.

I know of quite a few people even during the 1980's who were TU militants, as well as active LP members who held reactionary views be it on race, particularly in relation to gypsies, misogyny, or homosexuality. Some of them were Labour Councillors.

I remember walking through Mansfield in 1984 with the NUM, with the Miners on the march singing to women looking out of office windows, "Get your tits out for the lads." I remember in the 1970's the nationalistic. Little Englander nature of the anti EU campaign led by Tony Benn and others, and of the same reactionary nationalist s entiments of the AES and British Road To Socialism Calling for Import Controls and Immigration Controls, in line with the reactionary economic nationalist agenda of Stalinism derived from Stalin's 1924 Theory of Socialism In one Country, which became mantra for the Stalinist International. In Britain's case it harked back to Britain's past imperial glories.

So, in many recent vox pops, you hear the older proponents of Brexit again talking about the fact that Britain conquered half the world. These are not new ideas that they have developed in retirement, they are reactionary nationalistic sentiments they have always held. They didn't stop them voting Labour, or even joining Labour, because for years there were sections of the labour movement, particularly the Stalinists and their fellow travellers that facilitated those reactionary nationalist ideas. Groups like the Militant and SWP continually failed to take on these reactionary ideas, for fear of losing potential recruits from amongst these economic militants, due to their Wokerist, Economist tendencies. The SWP of course was renowned for such compartmentalisation, as with its RESPECT venture with Galloway and Political Islam.

The left is again reaping what it has sown in having failed to address the poison of reactionary nationalism over the decades. Preferring instead on he one hand to "build the party" by an Economistic focus on industrial struggle, and industrial militants, and on the other by an abstention on getting its hands dirty in that struggle in confronting the reactionary ideas of real workers, preferring instead to retain its purity by focusing on work in the student movement or in identity politics. In other words, the politics of least resistance.

George Carty said...

Are you sure that right-wing populism's skew towards the elderly is the case in the entire Western world, not just in English-speaking countries?

PlebJames said...

Lots of retirees had working class upbringing and moved into middle-class occupations and wage brackets. That trajectory can make people feel less sympathetic towards those unable to do the same.

Underlying some of this is the tendency for structural factors to fade into the background in people's perceptions (over years and decades, as people get older), whilst individual and cultural factors remain foregrounded. This is only a tendency, and can be overcome, but Tories and the right-wing press are pushing at an open door (psychologically speaking).

Speedy said...

Simply some observations -

- older people tend to be less educated and therefore have less critical training. A small minority went to grammar school and even less higher ed.
- this may not be politically correct, but you can also see it in the opinions of talented younger generations, Julie Burchill and Morrissey for eg. A lack of a university education, combined with high intelligence, can be a dangerous thing.
- not sure i agree with the disindustrialised young business. It's always been like that. I think the young are simply less threatened, that makes them more open and less conservative. Unless they are skinheads - a threatened working class phenomenon.
- look, if people voted IN THEIR INTEREST, there would be a permanent Labour government. However, they don't. But people always vote in their PERCEIVED interest - this is therefore connected with their critical faculties or sense of threat level (which you address, admittedly).

Anonymous said...

"But poll after poll, election after election, and country after country shows a pronounced bias among the old to right wing parties. And this is especially acute when we talk about hard right populist insurgencies, like the Brexit Party here, the AfD in Germany, FN in France and so on. "

This is not true, although Brexit may heavily tilt towards the older generation populatist movements on the continent do not

"The average AfD supporter is 51.4 years old, which is just a few months older than the average voter. CDU, SPD and FDP supporters are all older on average, and count more pensioners among their supporters."

"Some 44 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds backed the Front National leader, compared with 56 per cent who voted for centrist Emmanuel Macron, according to projections.

The far-right Ms Le Pen secured more support among young voters than any other age group. By contrast, she was backed by just 20 per cent of over 65s."

Graham said...

Where is the class analysis in all this?

There are both rich, middle class and poor, working class pensioners.

Although in the long term pensioner poverty has fallen, 16% are still
in relative poverty (compared with 22% of the general population and 14% are in absolute poverty (compared to 20%).

The number of pensioners in both relative and absolute poverty increased in 2017-18 as inflation and accommodation costs took a bigger chunk out of their incomes.

The 27% still in rented accommodation are as exposed to the housing crisis as the young.

The generation war is an attempt to hide the class war and you shouldn’t be contributing to the myth that the problems of poverty in Britain is down to “the baby boomers stealing all the money”.

Speedy said...

'Are you sure that right-wing populism's skew towards the elderly is the case in the entire Western world, not just in English-speaking countries?'

In France the NF draws its greatest support from the young and gay, as a proportion.

Phil said...

I'm afraid Graham has closed his eyes and put his fingers in his ears. No, there shouldn't be a generational war but the Tories have created one. To stop it we need to know how they've accomplished this and what should be done about it. Hence the arguments here.

With regard to France, mea culpa for looking at old stats. In the presidential election in 2017 *34%* of 18-24 voters supported Le Pen, whereas it was 27% of over 65s (source). However, the age splits for the non-binary choice of the first round can't easily be found. On Germany, the average age of the AfD voter may be lower than the CDU/CSU and SPD, but that's hardly surprising seeing as those parties have been in power for a long time and have done very little for younger voters. The Greens on the other hand, see how they have powered to the fore precisely because they're more in tune with the aspirations of the young.

Socialism in One Bedroom said...

Boffy talks about old folk who don’t own their homes but it should be pointed out that alongside age another major factor in voting intentions in recent elections as been whether a person owns (incl mortgages) or rents their home. Those who rent are much more likely to vote for Corbyn’s labour than those who own their homes, who are much more likely to vote Tory. So older people who own their home are much more likely to vote Tory than labour, and more likely to vote Brexit too.

They don’t do the stats for those who chant, ‘get your tits out for the lads’, so we only have Boffy’s anecdotal evidence for this. Boffy once said that anecdotal evidence was unscientific and had to be discounted. Funny how his observations and experiences can be brought into the argument and no one else’s can be! This is typical of this scoundrels approach to all things.

“Stalin's 1924 Theory of Socialism In one Country”

You would think someone who is even more idiotically anti Stalinist than Boris Johnson would perhaps think that Stalin’s Theory of Socialism in One Country was a propaganda text (Stalin is an arch propagandist for Stalinphobes like Boffy right). But Boffy ignores all the historical context and just takes it as read!

Without wishing to sound like a broken record, Stalin was never ever about Socialism in One Country. Stalinism was about building a union of ‘socialist’ economies.

If you are going to call the Soviet Union and its satellite states socialism in one country, then you might as well say is France neo liberalism in one country and Britain neo liberalism in one country and totally ignore the whole EU thing!

But Boffy doesn’t do this and shows his pro bourgeois prejudice. For Boffy every attempt by the bourgeoisie to create blocks is greeted as ultra progressive, when the US carry out uber economic nationalism (i.e. imperialism) Boffy trumpets the civilising mission of capitalism but when the proletariat try to create economic blocks and economic agreements, Boffy derides this as economic nationalism!

This confirms what i already believe. Boffy is a shill for the Bourgeoisie.

Blissex’s point about rentier and property gain is just a reflection of how the imperialism Boffy cheerleads contributes enormously to the reactionary politics of the UK. Though for me New Labour were every bit as reactionary as the Tories. Boffy’s view of progressive and reactionary is entirely from the viewpoint of Middle Class Liberalism, which is not surprising given Boffy is basically speaking for the Middle Classes.

To be fair Phil BC’s whole Conservatism is in decline due to demographics is based on such a Middle Class liberalism. I.e. progress is judged by how many men say get your tits out for the lads or by how many racist chants there are at football matches, as opposed to for example what % of black people make up the prison population. Actually the prison population quadrupled in size in the last 20 years, you will not find this stat in the pseudo lefts analysis, you will more likely get the stat, how many women are represented in boardrooms!

thOnlySanePersonOnPlanetEarth said...

I think using the generational differences is playing into the ruling classes hands. Its classic divide and rule. I noticed how the BBC and Sky news have peppered their propaganda output with stories that push the work til you die agenda and the idea that the wealth of older people should be raided.

By creating this divide the ruling class will find it much easier to implement these policies and truly turn us all into debt slaves.

Great work guys!

Having said all that, maybe the older folk are more reactionary because older people are much much more likely to get their news from the mainstream media than younger people, who have turned off the mainstream. Though of course these poor kids have to go through being indoctrinated when they are young.

Maybe socialists should call for all children to be taken off their parents at birth!

George Carty said...

Re the 2017 French presidential election, my understanding was that Macron won because he was the only one of the four strongest candidates with cross-generational support, even though he was outpolled among the young by Mélenchon, among the middle-aged by Le Pen and among the elderly by Fillon.

Boffy said...

Macron won, because all of the others were appalling. He won in the final ballot despite huge levels of abstention.

His Presidency is not based on positive approval, but only on marginally less disapproval than that for Le Pen. Its a lesson that Labour should learn here. There may be no great enthusiasm for the Liberals or Blair-rights, but if Corbyn/Melonchon appears to be offering simply another version of the economic nationalism/Brexit of Johnson/Farage/Le Pen, it doesn't mean that the centrists might not resurge, as was shown in the Local and EU parliament elections.

Anonymous said...

Spoke to some non astroturf older people yesterday- unequivocally Labour- small sample size, but we still have much to fight for...

Anonymous said...

Spot on with analysis.

Jimbo said...

The problem isn't old people voting Tory. It is young people not bothering to vote at all.

Anonymous said...

Macron is a Tory ffs, albeit the French version! The fact that older people vote Macron is totally consistent with older people in Britain voting for the Tories. Macron is a bit like Blair, not only is he a twat in a suit but he has that cross generational appeal to fellow twats. And like in Britain, there are lots of twats in France.

In fact when the centrists manage to find another twat in a suit the young in Britain will vote for him/her too!

Its twats were up against, not sheep!

George Carty said...

How much of the anti-Labour bent of people of my mothers' generation (she was 60 this year) is down to the fact that for many of them their formative political experience was the Winter of Discontent?

Boffy said...

The Winter of Discontent was formative for me. It confirmed my opposition to the right-wing of Labour, represented by Callaghan, who was responsible for trying to restrain the wages of low paid public sector workers, after his attempts to get the big employers to keep to his Social Contract had failed (He tried to stop Fords making a big payout using the fact the government was a big customer, but failed because Vauxhall already conceded a big pay rise for its workers).

He showed himself to be an even bigger idiot, because had he held the election in 1978, as expected, before the WoD, he would have won by a clear majority.

But, it even more confirmed my opposition to the Tories who tried to take advantage of the misery that was caused to attack those same low paid workers, and their unions, for their own narrow political advantage. As a Labour Party member, union activist and prominent member of my local Trades Council, I had no difficulty in knowing which side I was on during that time, and nor did my parents.

Indeed, look what happened shortly after 1979. Thatcher's poll ratings collapsed. When Foot took over, and began to organise marches against rising unemployment in major cities across the country every month, Labour soared to 51% in the opinion polls. Labour's advance was halted by a number of things. The Bennite?Stalinist left's obsession with economic nationalism/opposition to the EEC was a diversion, seeing them lining up alongside Powell, the NF etc, and gave the SDP right an opening to split. It wasn't that the Tory vote rose, but that the anti-Tory vote got split, as the SDP took away Labour votes, especially after lining up with the Liberals (sound familiar). Then Thatcher launched the Falklands War, and a load of reactionary nationalists rallied around the flag, whilst Foot failed to provide a clear internationalist position. Again, sound familiar.

Blissex said...

«This situation, of the old effectively turning against the young, is not natural. It is a situation arrived at by policy decisions, and cynically sustained by the Tories and the powerful forces they act for.»

It was not natural when mothers (and rather more briefly, fathers) relied on young sons as pension assets to provide for them in their old age: lower hosing costs and better employment prospects and better wages for their sons meant a more comfortable old age.

One of the unintended consequences of social-democracy, the ability of older people to live as rentiers on their property gains and their occupational pensions, has implied that they are better off if housing costs rise and there is more unemployment and lower wages (as well as causing a collapse of birth rates in many countries).

George Carty said...

Blissex: "It was not natural when mothers (and rather more briefly, fathers) relied on young sons as pension assets to provide for them in their old age: lower hosing costs and better employment prospects and better wages for their sons meant a more comfortable old age."

Didn't Bismarck introduce old age pensions in the first place because he feared the possibility of a powerful anti-war movement dominated by women who greatly feared the prospect of old-age financial ruin if their sons were killed in battle?

If today's system of old age provision favours the childless however (because those with children will need to pay to help them onto the property ladder) isn't that a good thing because it reduces population growth (or at least, it would be a good thing if people weren't concerned the ethnic make-up of the country, as it would make the country more able to absorb immigrants from places which still have excessive birth rates)?