The young must learn from politics of old

1 Nov 2015


Pensioners now have a higher median income than the average UK worker. This is a telling reminder of how representative democracy works.  With electoral reform now firmly on the horizon, it is finally time for young people to take heed. 


It has been quite a week for terrifically exciting people who, like me, are keen followers of statistics and the British constitution.


The Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed on Thursday that the UK’s population is projected to reach 70 million in the next twelve years. The announcement will no doubt fuel continued debate over the sustainability of population growth in the context of growing pressure on Britain’s public services.


But such eye-catching figures failed to dominate the agenda over and above cries from the House of Commons of ‘constitutional crisis’.


If the Conservatives are to be believed Monday’s move by the House of Lords to halt the government’s plan to cut tax credits not only dealt a blow to their overarching fiscal plans, but have brought about a need for Lord Strathclyde to firmly scrutinise the state of the relationship between the elected and unelected chambers of parliament. 


But if you dig a little deeper, the two themes - statistical revelation and the House of Lords - come together in a manner that should be of interest to all young people in the country.


Hidden beneath the headline fuelling ONS statistic on population growth was the following:


“The population is projected to continue ageing [and]… by mid-2039 more than one in twelve of the population is projected to be aged 80 or over”


The economic implications of an ageing population are well rehearsed by now, but are brought into sharp political context by two further statistical goodies.


The ONS’s new 'Nowcasting' initiative produced provisional estimates of the distribution of income between households in the UK. Part of their findings was that the annual income of retired households was up £1,800 since the 2008 financial crisis, as compared with that of working households - down £800.


This added to the theme of a recent speech by Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). He claimed that once relevant deductions were made the median weekly income of a pensioner was £398, £12 more than that of a UK worker.


More interestingly, Johnson went on to argue that the ‘triple lock’ brought in by the Coalition to protect pensioners from losing out was unsustainable, providing an extraordinary rise in income which could not be maintained for future generations.


But the young have much more immediate worries than those that Johnson raises regarding their pensions.


The notion of the ‘grey vote’ has protected the elderly from bearing much of the brunt of austerity.


However younger, working, people constantly find themselves hit. This can be seen in the housing crisis, changes to the costs of higher education, and the fact that those under 25 will not benefit from what has been branded the new National Living Wage.


The cumulative effect of government’s neglect of the young is so stark that the Human Rights and Equality Commission’s recently found that young people are facing the ‘worst economic prospects for several generations’. This fueled a thunderous front page of Friday’s Independent: ‘Shut out: the generation Britain betrayed’


Even bubbling underneath the dramatic developments in the Lords on Monday was the divide between the government’s attitude to the old and the young.


Tax credits had been ear-marked as the means of bringing about £4.4 billion of welfare savings in a move that would have a detrimental effect on those in work on low incomes. However pensions, remain unscathed despite making up the largest single portion of overall welfare spending at 42%


That brings us to a Lords vote in which the government did scrape a win this week.


Passed by peers with a mere margin of 11 votes was David Cameron’s attempt to push through changes to the electoral register before 2016.


The reform means young voters who were registered to vote by the head of their household in the past must now register again individually.


The Electoral Commission - who had urged the Lords to vote down the bill - claim that it will mean 1.9 million young people could be excluded from voting, a development that could be detrimental to a demographic already poorly represented at the ballot box.


Irrespective of the rightness or wrongness of the government’s electoral reform the combination of its passage through the Lords and the statistics showing the financial thriving of pensioners under the government in recent times send a clear message to the young.


Without consistent political participation, our needs will be passed over time and time again by governments of all colours.


The idea of a severe cost to political disengagement in a representative democracy is by no means new but it is important. Developments this week mean now more than ever that when it comes to getting their way politically, the young must take a leaf out of the book of the old.

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