Young or old

I have a good deal of time for Politics Scot. Tonight he tweeted this (https://twitter.com/PoliticsScot)

In this regard, he is doing little more than repeating a widely held point of view – that it was the older generation that lost us the last referendum and could cost us the next one. In terms of relative vote, it is hard to argue with that. The issue, though is less how we lost the last one, and more how we win the next one, and what I want to argue is that focusing on the group that did most to cost us the last referendum might be quite the wrong way of setting about it.

The highlighted figures in the table, show the degree of resistance among the over 55s of practically every party (other than the SNP of course) to voting Yes next time. Therefore, the argument goes, we should be focusing on convincing the over 55s to vote for Yes.

The widely held view is that to be young is to be liberal, but old is to be conservative- or to be young to support Yes, but old to vote No. These figures support that thesis.

However, American research reported here (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/09/the-politics-of-american-generations-how-age-affects-attitudes-and-voting-behavior/) suggests that while different age groups do have different political ideas, the young=liberal, old=conservative view does not always work. For instance, they show that those aged over 65 are pretty evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

The classic quote on age and attitude is by François Guizot, who said, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” But it has been shown by Alwin, Cohen and Newcomb in “Political Attitudes Over the Lifespan” (https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3a927Jder6IC&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22political+attitudes+over+the+life+span%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=SnO9U63AF9DLsATrtYKgDA&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22political%20attitudes%20over%20the%20life%20span%22&f=false) that “through late childhood and early adolescence, attitudes are relatively malleable…with the potential for dramatic change possible in late adolescence or early adulthood. [B]ut greater stability sets in at some early point, and attitudes tend to be increasingly persistent as people age.” In other words, while Guizot may have been correct about ages between 20 and 30, the argument should not be extended further – at some point our political views become relatively fixed.

Ghitza and Gelman show in “The Great Society: Reagan’s Revolution and Generations of Presidential Voting” (http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/research/unpublished/cohort_voting_20140605.pdf) that there exist in the US different political generations, each shaped by political events during their formative years: New Deal Democrats, Eisenhower Republicans, Baby Boomers, Reagan Conservatives and Millennials.

Now if we apply these ideas to the next independence referendum it may give us cause to think that the widely held nostrum – well expressed by Politics Scot – that we need to get the older generation onboard – just might not be as true as we might think it to be.

First of all, if attitudes at some point during adulthood become relatively fixed – or demonstrate a greater stability – then it will be the older generations who will be harder to get to change their minds. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, while this might not be for those in the earlier stages of 55+ age group, anyone who is 70 or older grew up in a world where the United Kingdom and Great Britain actually meant something. It was a world where to say that the sun never set on the British Empire was actually true. It was a country which had stood alone against Hitler and been one of the allies that had defeated him. As Maurice Smith put it in a recent Newsnet podcast, “people who have grown up watching John Mills’ movies”. (http://newsnet.scot/archive/podcast-two-years-indyref-13-weeks-brexit-next/). This was the crucible in which their ideas were formed, and the idea of bringing that United Kingdom to an end will often be relatively more difficult than for younger age groups who have lived through a period of pretty continuous decline.

So if they are not to be targeted then who? If we go back to the figures in the table, then we can see that to secure a majority can be achieved in either (or both) of two ways.

If, as is common for opinion polls, we rule out the undecideds, then a majority could be secured by getting at minimum 29 No voters to turn to yes, nearly 6%. Where would that 6% come from? If we rule out the over 55s as ‘too difficult’ then it has to be from younger age groups. There are 239 No voters aged less than 55, so 29 of them would be 12%, from any party but less likely to be Conservatives, where the balance between Yes and No is more marked than even for SNP voters voting Yes.

Moreover, particularly among the youngest age group – 16-34 (where ideas are more malleable!) – the balance for Yes is particularly pronounced (55% Yes to 32% No). If political ideas are influenced – among this younger, more malleable group – by their peers then perhaps it is most likely that converts would be secured here rather than among the elderly as Politics Scot suggests.

But there is another group we have ignored so far – those characterised as undecided. Typically, these are either excluded from the final result, or it is assumed that they will allocate themselves in the same proportions as those who have made their mind up already. There are 73 aged less than 55 in the undecided category. For this group to push Yes to a majority. To take the Yes vote (440) above the No vote (497) would require nearly 80% of this undecided group to come across, so it is at best difficult, and probably unlikely that even persuading younger undecideds to vote Yes is going to secure a Yes vote. More likely that some combination of securing currently undecided votes and converting No votes to Yes, particularly among young voters, will be the way forward.

Therefore, if the view that our opinions do not usually change significantly with age are correct, then the more productive approach to secure a Yes majority might be, counterintuitively, not to focus on the group which relatively cost us the last referendum – older voters whose opinions were formed in a rather different United Kingdom – but to work harder to secure the votes of existing No votes among younger voters whose opinions are more receptive to new ideas, whose conversion might be relatively easier.