You know them. Chances are, you’re one of them. No longer in the first flush of youth – a little grey around the edges, perhaps – but still wearing at least fragments of the old uniform of denim, trainers, T-shirt, leather jacket or fleece. There’s most likely a backpack or tote bag on view, even a piercing – and, under the clothes, a modest tattoo or several somewhere. Oh, and your views on Suella Braverman? People, we know those.
An ontological question: if there is a force in politics for which there is no name, does it exist? In this case I’m fairly sure it does, because I see it all around me, and across the country. By “it” I mean people.
The people I’m talking about are youngish middle-aged – that is, from their mid-thirties through to early-fifties: millennials and Generation X. They lean left-liberal and are strongly environmentally conscious.
Economically they are definitely not “boomers”. They may have missed out on the chance to buy a decent home and, if not, are struggling desperately with mortgage repayments. They have missed out on the lifetime career, so have a scarily scant accumulation of pension to look forward to. If they have children, they are deeply pessimistic about their offspring’s life chances. Socially, they are liberal on race, gender and sexuality, and that’s because they are highly likely to have been university-educated – and that’s, in part, thanks to Tony Blair.
Universities are a big part of the story. In 1980, towards the beginning of the Thatcher era, 15 per cent of British adults were in higher education; by 1990 it had jumped to 25 per cent. In 1999 Blair said he wanted 50 per cent of Britons to go into higher education after 18. The target was reached in England in 2017-18, with the figures strongly skewed towards women.
It’s hard to prove that going to university changes people’s political views for decades ahead. But we know that a left-leaning bias seems to be continuing longer in voters’ lives. In the 2019 general election, according to YouGov, 56 per cent of people in their forties voted for Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens, and only 41 per cent for the Conservatives. For voters in their fifties – once the decade in which you could assume people became instinctively Conservative – the breakdown was almost even-stevens.
Now of course, as the 2019 election result showed, there is no such thing as demographic inevitability in politics. Actual seats won for particular parties are also all about the spread and breakdown of the vote in different areas; the ability of the parties to respond to voters’ top concerns; and the popularity or credibility of party leaders.
Yet something big is happening to the generational split, and has been for a while. Four years ago Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation argued that class was no longer the central driving force behind political allegiance: “Age as a strong driver of which party we vote for has been building for decades. In the Seventies our voting patterns didn’t change much by age but by 2017 a 30-year-old was twice as likely to back Labour over the Conservatives, while a 70-year-old was twice as likely to do the opposite.”
When I spoke to Bell recently he told me he thought the trend for liberalism lasting later in life was accelerating, not slowing. Both main parties have become reliant on age-based coalitions: “It’s not surprising then that the middle-aged, not just middle-class, are seen as today’s marginal voters.”
This continuing change may be exacerbated by something the British Election Study spotted for the 2019 election: that turnout among younger voters is rising slightly, while turnout among voters aged 55 to 74, who are more likely to be Conservative, is dipping. When Jacob Rees-Mogg recently conceded that the Tories had been trying to “gerrymander” by introducing voting ID, but that this had not worked because it had put off older voters, this is the trend he probably had at the back of his mind.
And, indeed, at this point of the argument, you might assume that the rise of university-educated liberal voters, left off the capitalist escalator, whose politics remain unchanged later in their lives is a pretty simple story – just more unequivocal bad news for the Conservative Party. I think it is, but there’s also more to it than that. Universities, influenced by their American sisters, plus a general failure of wealth redistribution, are driving the country in a liberal-left direction. This is a new disruptive force in British politics. Clearly, it should be named.
The recent Westminster obsessions have been Red Wall voters and the interests of the electorate of the slumberous Tory shires in the so-called Blue Wall. In each case we have a clear mental image of who we mean – hard-working monarchists driven to use food banks and irate about the collapse of the local town centre, where charity shops and Polish delicatessens have replaced the butchers and the Woolworths. Or, in the second example, men in burgundy corduroys muttering into their Daily Telegraphs about seed prices and the disappearance of chub in the local river.
But for this other group – these pivotal, volatile voters, effectively unplugged from the promises of capitalism and spread right across the country – there is no name or obvious mental image.
This is a force that Westminster, in the dog days of a long Conservative hegemony, has failed to recognise. In struggling to find a term to describe it, words such as “precariat” and “nomad” come to mind. “Inbetweeners” was popular with journalistic colleagues. “Midlife woke?” “High Yearners”? For my more literal mind, “Mavis” sort of works, as an acronym for Middle-Aged Volatile Insurgent voters.
I think I know what at least one iteration of Mavis looks like: I can describe her floppy jacket, tied-back hair, reading and musical habits; I know that she is in a rental or shared-ownership flat, and is doing high-value work but on an endless series of contracts. Her partner works in the public sector, is a lapsed vegan, a good father and worries about their Twitter habit.
But since “Mavis” is also male, and an old-fashioned name for a new-fashioned political force, this term doesn’t really fit, either. “Mavis” is also likely to be a New Statesman type – I hope a subscriber, but perhaps a borrower. So, I hereby pass my naming problem to you, the readers. Naming Mavis is now a crowd-sourced conundrum.
The reason this new force ought to be of concern not only to the Tories but to the Labour leadership is that it is, seemingly, strongly liberal. We cannot cross-reference groups easily, but the latest social trends survey from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) gives some indication about why this turbulent section of the electorate should be taken seriously by all sides.
Take immigration, the headline-grabbing political issue of the moment. In its most recent British Social Attitudes survey, NatCen asked voters whether they thought immigration was good or bad for the economy. The proportion who answered the latter fell from 42 per cent in 2011 to 20 per cent in 2021. The proportion that thought immigration good for the economy rose from 21 per cent to 50 per cent.
The researchers also asked a series of questions about “culture war” issues, which so tediously dominated the National Conservatism Conference in May. Again, the results were very different from what you might have expected. Some 73 per cent of people thought rights for LGBTQ people had not gone far enough or were “about right”, an increase from 62 per cent in 2013. And on the hottest topic of all, 64 per cent thought rights for transgender people had not gone far enough or were about right. Only a third thought they had gone too far.
Describing those and similar shifts on rights for black and Asian people, John Curtice, senior fellow at NatCen, said last year: “As a country, we are as liberal as we have been at any point since this survey started in 1983.”
Why should this be an issue for the opposition? In straightforward terms, because it ought to put a lid on how illiberal Labour politicians feel they should be. They cannot look in one direction alone.
There had been a sense that, focused on Red Wall defectors at their angriest (think Lee Anderson, a former Labour councillor who is now a Tory deputy chairman), it is impossible for Labour to be too patriotic, too hard-line on law and order, too hostile to migrants. Keir Starmer, for example, attacked the Conservatives for losing control of immigration numbers just weeks before Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, said Labour was a “pro-migration party”.
In terms of political strategy, none of this is easy. Over the past three years Labour has been painfully relearning some old truths. Having a Labour leader who is unaffectedly proud of Britishness, and who focuses on the day-to-day problems of working families – which include street crime as well as the cost of living – is a good and useful thing. But there is always a balance to be struck.
The country is more subtle, supple and complex in its social views than the simple binaries of Westminster allow. Recent coverage of the small boats issue and of “woke” politics in parliament gives a profoundly distorted sense of real Britain.
There are Mavises everywhere, always ready to turn to the Lib Dems or Greens or the SNP if Starmer, Wes Streeting and Rachel Reeves get the tone wrong. They want to hear more on climate change, housing, civil liberties and the NHS. Hovering over Twitter, they hate divisive language – unless it’s directed at the Tories. Highly educated, they are very sensitive to tone. I recently argued in these pages that the question of whether we were heading towards an overall Labour majority or a coalition was going to become a central political issue in the months ahead. Mavis knows why.
[See also: What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?]
This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation