The ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign is asking youngsters to ‘Talk to Gran’, a campaign to lobby older people to get them to vote ‘remain’ in the upcoming EU referendum. But older voters may not be so easily persuaded. Will Granny and Grandad tell the youngsters a thing or two instead? Will grandparents who voted ‘Yes’ in 1975, be voting ‘Leave’ this time around? Are they ‘Once bitten, twice shy’?
I was 12 years old when the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) or ‘Common Market’ was held. I didn’t get a vote. The youngest voters who did get a vote in that plebicite, held on 5th June 1975, will be 59 on 23rd June 2016 when the next referendum is held. These are the Grannies and Grandads of today’s younger voters. How have the opinions of these voters on the question of the ‘European Project’ changed in the 41 years since the British electorate had a clear say on the ‘European Project’?
As We Who are Left Grow Old…
There’s not actually a lot of evidence on the breakdown of voters’ opinions by age in 1975. While exit polling was done (by ITN), these just seem to have captured yes/no data, and nothing about the voters themselves.
The best contemporary information I have come across is an opinion poll by Gallup (fig 1).
Table 1 1975 referendum votes. Actual results and Opinion Polling data. Poll data is by Gallup. (1)
The data is, for some reason, incomplete. There is an age group (55-64) that is entirely missing. However for the present purposes this is of little matter. While, of course, some of the people in the missing group will still be alive in 2016, they will be at least 96 years old today, and not very many of them, so will have little influence in the 2016 vote. We can, I am afraid, assume that the people in the +65 group in 1975 are all no longer with us.
However, the voters in the younger groups, aged between 18 and 44 in 1975 will, by and large, be with us still, now aged between 59 and 85. These are the grannies (and grandads) that young ‘remainers’ are asked to persuade to vote to stay in the EU in 2016.
There has, of course, been significant demographic change in Britain since 1975. This reason, amongst others, means that we cannot really match the voters of today with those of yesteryear directly. Still, as a first approximation, it will suffice.
Idealism of Youth
Looking at the 1975 voters, Table 1 shows that the youngest group – a wide band of 16 years – were the least likely to vote ‘yes’ and amongst the least likely to vote ‘no’ and the least likely to vote at all. Given that youth were always supposed to be more ‘idealistic’, and even ‘adventurous’, why wasn’t there a greater support for ‘yes’ in this group? After all, Interrailing was popular amongst middle-class youth even back then, despite what some people appear to think.[a] The reason given at the time was simplistic, but may have been true: young people were more likely to support the Labour Party, and, within the Labour Party to favour the left. And the Labour Party was split between pro and anti-Marketeers, and the Labour Left was strongly anti-EEC.
Despite this, the youngest group is really only slightly less enthusiastic about the EEC in 1975 than the electorate in general. The difference is likely within the margin of error of the opinion poll. Perhaps, in the end, most followed the Labour leadership – Wilson, Callaghan, Jenkins – rather than the more charismatic left represented by Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and a young Neil Kinnock.
The number saying to the Gallup pollsters that they wouldn’t vote is a little higher than all the other age groups. However, this might just be more honesty on the part of the youngest voters. The poll suggests a non-voting rate in the younger age group pretty close to the eventual overall non-voting rate in the referendum. Certainly, it can’t be concluded that the 1975 under-34 voters were any more apathetic than the electorate as a whole.
Not Quite Middle Aged
According to the Gallup poll (Table 1 again), the ‘inbetweenie’ age group (35-44) were simultaneously the group most in favour of EEC membership, and the most opposed. Maybe childhood experiences of the war affected opinions both for and against closer involvement with the EEC. This group were perhaps more exposed to the trade union ‘out’ campaigning.
Again, the influence of senior politicians, such as Heath and Wilson, as opinion leaders and the pro-EEC stance of all the major newspapers (even including the Daily Mail and the Daily Express) was sufficient to bring the majority of voters in this age group to the ‘yes’ side. “It was plain that on a subject on which few people felt really strongly there was a general willingness to accept opinion leadership, particularly on the Labour side.” (1)
Once the non-voters are removed from this category, it can be seen that, within a modest margin of error, this age group was not far removed from that of the electorate as a whole – a clear majority in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU.
Where Are They Now?
Table 2 From YouGov survey. Fieldwork 29 Mar-4 Apr 2016 (2)
According to this poll by YouGov, shown in Table 1, young people today are much more likely to support remaining in the EU than their elders, either as they voted in 1975 and even more so as compared to the older age groups today. However, we can see that the views of those voting in the 1975 referendum do seem to have changed.
The younger half of the 1975 18-34 voters form just less than half of today’s 50-64 group of voters. The remainder are combined with all the voters aged 35 or over in 1975 in the modern group of 65+ voters. According to YouGov, these two modern age groups are in favour of leaving the EU, and by a clear margin.
Older and Wiser?
I know it’s a rather simplistic way of looking at the data, which has a lot of unmeasured complexity lying beneath it, but if it is assumed that the younger people who voted in 1975 are the same people who are likely to vote are amongst 2016’s older people, then we can draw some clear, if broad-brush, conclusions. For simplicity, I have averaged (mean) out the results for this analysis.
Table 3 Comparison of votes 1975-2016
It is perhaps no surprise that the expected turnout of these voters will be higher in 2016. It is an accepted truism that older people are more likely to vote than the younger. Partly, I suspect, it’s that older people have fewer other things to do. They are often retired. The reasons don’t matter for this purpose. The table (Table 3) shows a significant increase in the percentage actually expecting to vote. This might be an artefact of the polling system used, but it does ring true. However, it is unlikely that the expected turnout has a major effect on the balance between the Remain/Leave figures for 2016. I would be very surprised if those who did not vote in 1975 were all deep down anti-Europe voters who have continued to hold the same views for 40 years and are only now prepared to vote for them. Most likely, if the non-voters in 1975 had been forced to vote then, they would have been broadly as much in favour, or against, as the rest of their peer group.
What can be said, from this simplistic comparison, is that a significant percentage of those voting ‘Yes’ in 1975 will vote ‘Leave’ in 2016, and so will quite a few who didn’t trouble the returning officers in 1975. This isn’t just a statistical quirk. This looks like a significant change of mind.
So what has changed?
There are some basic factors that may explain the change. If political leadership means anything, then the fact that today the Conservative Party is very split on the issue of EU membership may be something to do with it, especially as it is generally accepted that old people are more likely to be Conservative than in their youth. The Labour Party, though broadly in favour of ‘Europe’ in 2016, still has a substantial number of anti-EU members, supporters and MPs.
I would also suggest that many of today’s older people who voted ‘Yes’ in 1975 are disappointed or disillusioned with the EU experiment. Either because the ‘democratic deficit’, identified by people such as Douglas Jay and Enoch Powell in the 1960s, has not been satisfactorily resolved. The belief that the EU, with its ‘ever closer union’ was not what was promised in 1975 seems strong in some quarters. Certainly, given the words used during the 1975 campaign and before, that we were joining a ‘Common Market’, and certainly not a ‘Union’[b], may now be seen as misleading. It doesn’t much matter if one argues that the evidence of the direction that the EU was to take was freely available in 1975, it is today’s perception that Britain was sold a pup by Wilson and Heath that rankles.
As it happens, in 1975 I was neither a voter (too young), nor a pro-marketeer. I therefore cannot say what changed my mind, as my mind has not changed on this subject. I will leave it up to those who were to explain for themselves… Perhaps to their grandchildren.
Talk to your Grandchildren
If young people can lobby their elders, why shouldn’t older people campaign by contacting the young? This isn’t a one-way street.
So, if you are a voter who has swung from being pro-‘Common Market’ to being a committed ‘Brexiteer’, go on, give the whipper-snappers a call. Tell your children and grandchildren why you’ve changed your mind in the last 40 odd years. It could be quite an eye-opener for them.
If you regret voting ‘Yes’ in 1975 because Heath and Wilson, or Thatcher or Jenkins told you to (or perhaps because Benn and Powell told you not to) tell the grandchildren. Don’t let today’s young voters make the same mistake and spend 40 years or more regretting their decision, made just because some politician suggested it.
The old are not ‘past it’. They can influence the young by sharing their experience: their life-lessons vote. They should not miss this chance to do so.
Update – 24 June 2016
Here’s the demographics for the EU referendum 2016, courtesy of Lord Ashcroft.
See also the discussion and further analysis by Lord Ashcroft. Generally, older people were for Leave, and the younger for Remain. Note that it wasn’t just the age groups who could have voted in 1975 that were majority ‘Leave’ in 2016, so were the slightly younger age group 45-54 who may have remembered (just!) the 1975 vote, but were too young to vote then. Basically my argument is unchanged by Lord Ashcroft’s data. Many of those who voted in both referendums changed from ‘In’ to ‘Leave’.
- Butler, David & Kitzinger, Uwe. The 1975 Referendum. London : The Macmillan Press, 1976. SBN 33319708 9.
- YouGov. YouGov Survey Results Fieldwork: 29th March – 4th April 2016. s.l. : YouGov, 2016.
- HM Government. Britain’s New Deal in Europe. London : HMSO, 1975.
- Wikipedia. Interrail. Wikipedia. [Online] [Cited: April 17, 2016.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interrail.
[a] Interrailing started in 1972. It is not, and never was, limited to EEC/EU member states, and is available to younger residents of many European countries, including Russia. (3)
[b] “There was a threat to employment in Britain from the movement in the Common Market towards an Economic & Monetary Union. This could have forced us to accept fixed exchange rates for the pound, restricting industrial growth and putting jobs at risk. This threat has been removed.” [My emphasis] (2)