The Grey Vote

7 March 2024

The Grey Vote

Removing distortion.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

Viewed narrowly, Michael Gove’s comment made to The Sunday Times, that if housing does not become more readily available younger generations may lose their faith in democracy, adds emphasis to his campaigns for the building of more houses and the reform of the law of tenancies. In that context it has merit but by flagging the need to ensure that all generations feel fairly dealt with, it raises far deeper issues.

Let us step back and look at democracy for a moment. No one could argue that it always produces wise government – only the most obstinate believer in the wisdom of crowds would think that. It does have the advantage, however, at least in Britain, of allowing political power to move around and keep a relationship with public sentiment. Provided the public sentiment is not too outlandish, that is probably a good thing and those in the losing party can accept the verdict of the electors.

It gets much more difficult when substantial parts of the community believe that they are oppressed or that dangerously unwise decisions are being made, and see little prospect of remedying this through the political process. Then democracy no longer works for them and if they wish to improve things they have to resort to coups, gerrymandering and the like. That is why in very split communities, such as that in Northern Ireland, democracy has to be diluted by arrangements for power-sharing.

What then of our own younger generation? Might they not feel that society as it stands does not really work for them? Why is the state pension for the elderly protected by the ridiculous triple lock? Why is housing so expensive? Why is it that so much of the nation’s wealth seems to be in the hands of the older generation? Sure, many of them worked for it and long retirements need funding, but how much chance have those of the young who work equally hard of getting themselves into a similar position?

“Well,” you might say, “this is the sort of thing which the political process will sort out.” But will it? Doesn’t the fact that more of the population are elderly (the proportion over the age of 65 rising from 16.95% to 19.17% over the 10 years to 2022) mean that gradually the voting weight is moving up the age scale? Is this creating a distortion under which the interests of those who still have a big contribution to make are being crushed by the demands of their seniors?

I should not be taken to suggest that the older generation care nothing for the young. That wouldn’t be true, but think for a moment about how individuals form their political views. A young person has energy and enthusiasm, the daily tasks of life are not difficult and there is time to focus on a larger picture, time for ambition, time to develop a philosophy, time to focus on long-term goals. Getting older means narrowing the focus. Of course there is the advantage of experience but, more importantly, more energy and thought needs to be given to the immediate. Just what is that pain? Can one be bothered to climb four stories to collect one’s glasses? Is it still safe to drive at night? And it isn’t just health either. Someone young has their entire life before them to make good a wrong step in their career. The older person who loses their job just before retirement or unwisely frittered away their pension? – not so good. Older people are naturally more risk averse.

There used to be a story of two men sitting in leather armchairs discussing politics. They were from different generations and the elder of the two was rubbishing the revolutionary ideas of the younger. The dinner gong went and as they rose the elder held out his hand and said rather patronisingly:

“My young friend, when I was your age I thought much as you do but age and experience have taught me differently and gradually my opinions have changed.”

His companion took the proffered handshake and replied; “I have enjoyed our discussion very much. I only wish, Sir, that I had known you when you were at your best.” Impertinent perhaps but there is something in it.

So let us feed our thoughts on the different decision-making processes of the generations into how our democracy works. If age makes people more apt to focus on themselves, the movement in demographics must favour an economic system biased towards the old. That in itself is not necessarily a problem but it becomes so when it blocks necessary reform and here the power of the aged can be a menace.  That triple lock, for example. It cannot be right that pensions increase annually at the higher of the increase in the cost of living, the increase in wages and 2.5%; so that if a year with a 3% increase in the cost of living is followed by a year with a 3% increase in earnings, the net rise in pensions is 6% even though inflationary growth may be different by either measure. Clearly that is potty. What about planning reform which will change the views too much? What about those free bus passes for all regardless of means? What about..? If parties are afraid to reform because they are afraid of the grey vote, should the grey vote be allowed to swing elections at all?

The making of democratic decisions together operates as a sort of national glue and for that reason all adults should have a vote when it comes to an election. But why should those votes be of equal weight? There seems to be no particular reason why they should and, if one felt that too much of the country’s resources went to the elderly or that their natural caution was impeding decision making, one answer would be to reduce their voting rights. Perhaps at the age of 65 one would move to a grey vote which only carried 75% of the weight of a full one.

Logically one could go further and make the weight of the vote dependent upon status, perhaps academic achievements or economic position or dedicated service – a sort of modern equivalent of the 40 shilling freeholder given the vote in 1430 – but the various increments would be too difficult to agree.  A simple system where those aged between 20 and 65 had slightly heavier voting rights than the rest of the electorate might correct some of the current bias.

Alas, none of this is going to happen. The nation loves its democracy almost as much as it does Shakespeare, and no party which sought to distort it would ever get power. That leaves the ball back with the older generation who need to think about politics in a less sectional way. If support for the triple lock meant losing votes for being idiots rather than gaining grey votes as a protector of the elderly, party policy would soon change. It is up to the older generation to join the political parties and to fight for the young.

Tile photo: by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash
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