As so often with quotes attributed to the great man, there is little evidence that Winston Churchill actually said that the “best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. Nonetheless, the Levelling-Up Secretary has endeavoured to add what we might term the Gove corollary to the Churchill doctrine: that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with a millennial voter.
The Surrey Svengali is preoccupied by the ability of Britain’s young to get onto the housing ladder. The nature of the crisis will be familiar to readers: the number of first-time buyers plummeting as housebuilding falls and rents soar. Usually, we mention these regarding their dire demographic implications for Conservative electoral prospects. But Gove is worried that is driving under-40s not just away from the Tories, but from democracy itself.
“If people think that markets are rigged and a democracy isn’t listening to them, then you get…an increasing number of young people saying, ‘I don’t believe in democracy, I don’t believe in markets’,” he told The Sunday Times. Lurid fearmongering from a housing secretary desperate to pass his long-awaited ban on ‘no-fault evictions’? I suppose suggesting the only alternative is military rule is one way of getting your policies past rentier MPs.
But is Gove right to suggest the kids aren’t alright? Research from Onward has found that more than three-fifths of Britain’s 18-34 year olds would support “a strong leader who does not have to worry about parliament or elections”. That has doubled in the last two decades. Almost half believe military rule would be an effective way to run the country – up from 9 per cent only a quarter of a century ago.
Does this mean that the YIMBYs are about to march on Westminister? Is Il Duce Harwood hoping to carpet the Green Belt via imperial fiat? Obviously not. Moreover, even if our shrunken military possessed the manpower to stage a coup, one hardly thinks their first order of business would be to repeal the Town and Country Act. Yet in claiming disillusionment with democracy, British millennials are following an international trend.
Four years ago, a survey of nearly five million people showed that those in their 20s and 30s, born between 1981 and 1996, had less faith in democratic institutions than their parents or grandparents did at the same age. Whilst similar trends were seen in Latin America, Africa, and southern Europe, the trend was particularly pronounced in the ‘Anglo-Saxon democracies’ of Britain, the United States, and Australia. Whilst baby boomers and those born between the wars continued to express confidence in democracy, millennials had grown steadily more disillusioned with democracy with age.
As millennials began university circa 2000, their levels of satisfaction with democracy were higher than for their parents’ generation. But it plummeted following the 2008 financial crisis. The biggest contributor to the fall was “economic exclusion”: high youth unemployment, wealth inequality, and shattered expectations. Britain hasn’t as serious a problem with the former as other European countries. But the latter two map perfectly housing onto our housing crisis.
Modern democracies are built on an implicit promise: if you work hard, pay your taxes, and play by the rules, you will be better off than your parents. Millennials and Gen Zs look set to be the first modern generations for whom that will not be the case. It has become passe to suggest that a generation struggling to accumulate capital are unlikely to become capitalists. But it should also be obvious that those receiving little benefit from democracy will have little enthusiasm for defending it. A property-owning democracy requires voters to own some property.
Consider what life has been like for those young people reaching political consciousness post-crash. Soaring house prices and wage stagnation. Austerity and ballooning student debt. Brexit and Covid. A political system that seems fundamentally rigged to enrich the elderly at their expense. According to the IPPR, young UK adults are the least likely to say democracy serves them well, whilst over 65s are the most likely. It isn’t hard to understand why.
Britain looks like a gerontocracy. Austerity disproportionately impacted the young; the elderly were protected by the Triple Lock. 73 per cent of 18–24-year-olds voted to Remain, yet retirees took us out. Lockdowns kept the young confined against a virus that posed little threat to them. Did the Government say thank you? No – it hiked taxes on young workers so that wealthy pensioners wouldn’t have to sell their homes. All the while, NIMBYism, immigration, and loose monetary policy sent house prices surging.
Suggesting that millennials will at least eventually benefit from a bumper inheritance is of little comfort when there won’t come until they are in their sixties or seventies. Suggesting youthful enthusiasm for immigration is like turkeys voting for Christmas doesn’t change who benefits from our current economic model. Confronted by this, is it a surprise if under-40s don’t think that democracy is working for them?
One response – short of revolution – is that taken increasingly by the youth of Europe: voting for parties promising a radical departure from the status quo. France, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Belgium: populists of the far-right and far-left are surging. A majority of French under-30s voted either for Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Marine Le Pen in 2017. 49 per cent of 25-34 year olds backed her in the second round in 2022. Similarly, Georgia Meloni’s coalition won almost half the vote of young Italians, against a backdrop of 30 per cent unemployment.
Whilst populists might habitually struggle to match campaign rhetoric with results in government, the evidence suggests that even just electing them reduces youthful disillusionment. Some countries that have elected leaders have seen a 16 per cent increase in satisfaction with democracy in a populist government’s first term. Rather than be enthusiastic autocracts, the young just want to be heard. Isn’t a Meloni better than a Mussolini?
First-past-the-post makes life difficult for new parties. Even then, Reform UK is pitched at the gerontocracy, not against them. A party run for golf club bores, by golf club bores, is unlikely to start covering fairways in housing. Jeremy Corbyn is the closest thing we have had to a continental populist, and his economic prospectus had an obvious appeal to young voters gawping at their student debt repayments. But a ‘Youthquake’ it was not.
Corbyn struggled in 2019 with the loss of older, Brexit-backing Red Wall voters. Under FPTP, any populist leader must form a coalition broader than millennials and Gen Zs. But whilst Keir Starmer may lack the cultural cut-through of the ‘Absolute Boy’, he still commands the support of 56 per cent of 18-24 year olds, compared to only 9 per cent for the Tories. Fortunately for young voters, voters of all ages are now fed up with the Tories.
Gove might prophetic in linking the housing crisis to democratic disillusionment. But it is Starmer who looks more willing to tackle it. Building 1.5 million homes and central to his mission of “national renewal”. For all his chutzpah, Gove was the Levelling-Up Secretary who scaled back national housing targets and put the brakes on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. Rishi Sunak would be an unlikely eleventh-hour convert to the approach of Pierre Poilievre.
As such, whilst rumours of its imminent death may be greatly exaggerated, the health of British democracy may well require a radical Labour government willing to tackle intergenerational inequality through a programme of mass housebuilding. Countries with greater wealth distribution – like Iceland or Austria – have seen the smallest losses of faith in democracy. Every new homeowner is another convert to the idea that democracy can work for them.
Yet can a government headed by Starmer and Sue Gray really be the transformative force Labour’s most optimistic fans are hoping for? Against a backdrop of escalating international crises, further immiseration beckons. With both parties having failed to deliver change, the spicier alternatives de rigeur amongst the young online right might escape from their Substacks into mass popularity. Professor Goodwin, the nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
But what happens if the populists prove unable to surmount the challenges that have already scuppered their mainstream alternatives? One hopes to never have to find out.
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Author: William Atkinson
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