This essay, on politics and demography, was my Observer column this week. It was published in the Observer, 27 January 2019, under the headline ‘Demography is not destiny. Politics should be about winning minds’.
Peter Kellner’s ‘crossover day’ has caused some commotion. Last Saturday, according to the veteran pollster, Britain became a majority Remain nation through demographic changes alone. Kellner’s calculations suggested that in the period since the 2016 referendum, sufficient old folk (who largely voted Leave) had died and enough teenagers, overwhelmingly Remain, had reached voting age to have wiped out the majority for Brexit.
Remainers seized on Kellner’s projections as ammunition for a second referendum. Critics (not all Leave supporters) condemned them as being, in the words of the Labour MP Caroline Flint, ‘unhelpful, ageist and divisive’. Whichever view one takes, the ruckus over ‘crossover day’ reveals the way that political demography – the study of the relationship between population changes and political attitudes – has become increasingly central to public debate.
Understanding demographic changes is undoubtedly important. An ageing population, changes in family sizes, shifts in the gender balance in the workplace – all have implications for policymaking and the allocation of resources.
Demographic analyses of political attitudes can also provide valuable insights. The demographic breakdown of the Brexit vote or the changing role of class in voting patterns can help illuminate significant social trends. Demography has, however, come to be more than an aid to policymaking or political strategy. It has increasingly come to be seen as a causal attribute. There is, many suggest, a fundamental link between demographic traits and political attitudes. It’s a perspective that leads people to assume that which needs to be explained. We know, for instance, that those who voted Leave were likely to have been less educated than those who voted Remain. Many took this as evidence that Brexiters voted as they did because they were uneducated, hence ignorant. But as the political scientist David Runciman has observed, a better explanation may be that education is no longer simply a means to knowledge but has, rather, become a marker of one’s values and worldview. Simple demographic arguments can blind us to the complexities of social change while also entrenching prejudices.
The obsession with demography has led to the fetishisation of certain groups and to the demonisation of others. The young are seen by many as the vanguard of liberalism and an open society. But while most young people are highly tolerant of diversity, many are also ambivalent about the merits of free speech and of democracy.
The old are castigated for their illiberalism and narrow-mindedness. But the 65-plus cohort is also the generation that helped foment the 60s revolution that transformed attitudes to sexuality, diversity and equality.
There is more here than a simple demographic cleavage between liberal youth and the illiberal elderly. What we are witnessing, rather, is likely to be a complex interplay of age, class and ethnicity against the background of a political system in turmoil.
An obsession with demography can also lead to a lazy, even cynical, form of politics in which politicians, rather than trying to win arguments, assume that minds cannot be changed and seek instead to appeal to particular groups and to tailor their message to what they assume those groups want to hear. This attitude is perhaps best expressed in Donald Trump, who cares little about changing minds but sets out primarily to consolidate his base.
On the left, too, this approach is becoming more ingrained. It’s the left, though, that will most suffer in the reduction of politics to demography.
We can see this in America in the raging debate within Democratic circles over whom the party should target in the 2020 presidential elections – white workers or minority groups. We can see it, too, in Labour’s Brexit prevarications; instead of setting out a clear policy and aiming to win people to that stance, the Labour leadership seems to think it better to send different messages to different groups on either side of the Brexit divide and to make a virtue of evasion.
In an age in which the politics of identity has become entrenched, demographic arguments inevitably have purchase. Ideals and values become seen not just as a terrain of political contestation but also as measures of tribal attachment.
The significance of the ‘crossover day’ argument was the claim that Britain had become Remain not because opinions had changed but because the electorate had. From one perspective, this was simply a statistical insight about a political swing arising out of demographic shifts. From another perspective, it entrenches the view that the motor of change is demography rather than politics. That’s a road we should all be wary of taking.
The image is one of Japanese artist Aoki Tetsuo’s ‘People’ illustrations.
Looking around the different suburbs of Cape Town this last couple of weeks, demography seems to be the defining feature of the wider city. It’s divided up into “demographic” cantons which are totally different from each other, both economically and culturally. Which one you live in would make a total difference to your life.
As a white person, there are many I can’t even safely go to. And even walking through commercial areas where there are hardly any white people, can feel a little alienating.
In the U.K. too, there is a great difference to how an inner city multicultural area feels like, to how a majority white town or suburb feels. That’s demographics I think. Tottenham and Guildford have totally different kinds of people and feel like very different places.
Another aspect of demographic change is that you can get sectarian politics taking a hold.
First it’s racism, but as the minority populations gain local parity or even become a majority, then they can start seeing things along group and cultural lines also.
Just a couple of weeks ago in the Guardian, we were told:
“White people assume niceness is the answer to racial inequality. It’s not.”
I’m now self conscious of smiling at the black people who serve me coffee here in South Africa.
This kind of political hectoring is with us for good now and isn’t going to go away.
We just saw last weekend how there was an outpouring of hatred for some American Catholic high school students when they were deemed to have been disrespectful to someone from a BAME culture in Washington DC.
The Native American banging his drum was deemed to possess a much higher level of righteousness than the white school boys and they should have deferred to him.
Also, the Black Hebrew bigots were just dismissed as nutty eccentrics, instead of hard core racists.
Demographics can have a profound affect on the culture of a place.
Of all South African cities, Cape Town is the one that’s stillgeographically most shaped by apartheid. If you have not already done so, do visit the District Six museum which tells the story of how a mixed community was brutally broken up by the apartheid government and blacks forced to relocate mainly to the shanty towns of the Cape Flats. What is really ‘alienating’, and perhaps something you should worry more about, is the way that apartheid divisions still haunt South African societies and continue to relegate most black people to the margins. As I’ve observed, ‘For much of the black population, fear and despair arises out of the sense that everything has changed, and yet so little has.’
Yes I did go there. The area is still pretty undeveloped.
I am completely conscious of an existing kind of Apartheid. The thought runs through my mind every hour of the day. It is quite disturbing, but I don’t know if it’s ALL down to injustice and white selfishness.
Some of it is, but I can’t help thinking about how culture comes into it too.
The whites seem so culturally different to the majority of the black people.
I heard the Economic Freedom Fighters rally live on the radio yesterday, and everything about that political rally seemed so culturally different to the white people’s culture. It was all singing and dancing, and raucous speeches. It was African – in a way that the white people I sit with in cafes drinking cappuccinos, are not.
What I can’t figure out is how the whites seem to earn so much more money.
It might be that wages for unskilled work are just far too low.
Good morning, I was struck by this sentence – ‘We know, for instance, that those who voted Leave were likely to have been less educated than those who voted Remain’. I haven’t come across this suggestion before, please could you point me to your sources for this statement? Thank you.
The link in the article is to the JRF report which provides the data. See also the Runciman article which i quote from, and link to, in the article. There is much material on this, but these two would be good starting points.