The other day I caught myself singing “it’s just one of those myths…” to the well-known song by Cole Porter which actually goes “it’s just one those things”. I wondered whether it had been a Freudian slip, until I realised it had to do with the many ‘myths’ which we, at Age UK, have set about to demolish and are charging against daily. ‘Older people this’, ‘population ageing that’. One of these myths is that the age of voters is, by and large, related with their political preferences.
It is usually voiced that it’s the relatively older voters who tip the balance in the General Elections in the UK, for the turnout among those over 55 is bigger than that of under-25s. Whereas this is true, the relation between age and voting intentions is often overlooked – it is simply accepted as a matter of ‘fact’ that such a relation exists: “older voters tend to go for the Conservatives”, for example.
Obviously, we don’t actually know how people finally vote, but we do know what they said they intended to vote shortly before each election –thanks to Ipsos-Mori, which has been collecting these data over the last 30 years. And thus I could test whether there has been any statistical association between age and voting intentions for the three main political parties (plus a fourth catch-all category, ‘other’) since the 1987 General Election – for previous years, the breakdown of the data by age varies. For this purpose I used a fairly common statistical test: the chi-square test of independence, which I’m sure you either know a lot about or do not want to know anything of right now, so I’m going to omit any details here.
The data come broken down into six age groups and for each one of these the percentage of respondents who said that would vote Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat (or the SDP- Liberal Alliance in 1987) or another political party is recorded. The following is the table for the 2010 General Election:
Obviously, some may say, age and intentions go hand in hand, after noting that 43.9% of voters aged 65 and over intended to vote Conservative against 29.5% of the under 24 whilst a mere 16% of the 65 plus said they were voting the Lib-Dems, against almost 30% of the youngest voters.
But what did I find? Not a trace of association. Ever. (Well, in the six General Elections since 1987). That’s why statistical tests have been developed (and why we rely on them): because eyeballing data may, and often is, very deceitful indeed. However it seems that many a commentator is keen on leaving the surface of reality completely unscathed, thus perpetuating this myth – and many others.