Saturday 22 October 2016

Election may come down to turnout amongst older and working-class voters

Published 25/02/2016 | 02:30

Grey vote: Pensioners protest outside the Dáil in 2013 against Budget cuts affecting the elderly. Photo: Collins
Grey vote: Pensioners protest outside the Dáil in 2013 against Budget cuts affecting the elderly. Photo: Collins

For the first time since the 1950s, there are more pensioners in the Irish State than there are twentysomethings. The generational reversal of fortunes in recent years has been little short of breath-taking.

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Although it hasn't been discussed much during the campaign, it is likely to have an impact on tomorrow's election.

But before looking at how the old and the young are likely to vote, and how the enormous demographic changes of the past few years could affect the result, let's consider another demographic grouping: working-class men.

Having a job is central to most people's lives. Losing a job is among the most traumatic experiences in life. In the recession, lower-skilled men suffered a lot more of this kind of trauma than any other group.

The huge decline in the numbers of men with few skills at work is likely to explain, to some extent at least, the alienation towards the political mainstream which has become marked in working-class communities.

The fact that the jobs recovery has not spread to the lower-skilled is even more likely to explain the extent of the anger.

Last Tuesday's quarterly jobs figures showed that the total number of people at work in the economy continued to rise in the final months of last year, albeit at a slower pace than had been the norm over the previous three years. But the strong turnaround in the labour market since 2012 has not been felt by everyone.

The number of males with no more than a primary education who are employed has merely stabilised over the past couple of years. It is down by a massive two-thirds since before the crash.

Those on the next educational rung up have done no better. The number of men with a lower secondary education (Junior Cert equivalent) who work actually hit a new record low in the final months of last year. Compared with the pre-crash period, employment among this group is down by almost half.

This huge change in the lives of so many men with lower skills levels must go some way to explaining why Sinn Féin is by far the best supported party among working-class voters.

Last weekend's 'Sunday Independent'/Millward Brown poll showed that most parties have similar levels of support across the social classes. Sinn Féin is different.

Among the "AB" group - professional types and the like - Sinn Féin had just 7pc support. At the other end of the class spectrum - the "DEs" - support was more than four times higher. Almost one in three people among the DEs backed Gerry Adams's lot, far higher than any other party or the Independents.

Among the big questions tomorrow will be whether turnout increases in under-privileged areas, where the share of people not exercising their franchise has traditionally tended to be high. With the mobilising effects of anger - in response to job losses and issues such as water charges - there could be a big increase in turnout. Sinn Féin would be the big winner if that happens.

If a class divide may well be emerging in Irish politics, an age divide is well established: there is a clear and long-established pattern that younger people are much less likely to vote than older folk.

The young, despite having a larger stake in the future than the elderly, are notoriously poor at exercising their right to vote. And because of the huge decline in the numbers of young people since the last election, the voice of youth risks being a mere whisper when ballot boxes are opened on Saturday.

At the time of the last election (and, as it happens, the last census too), there were almost 660,000 people in their twenties living in the Republic. Last year, according to estimates by the State's demographers, that had fallen by one-fifth. By now it is probably down by 25pc.

Just as the water charge issue is sometimes credited with mobilising working-class voters, the same-sex marriage referendum is cited as a factor in politicising the young. My hunch is that this won't have any meaningful impact in raising turnout among the young, and whatever increase there is, it won't be nearly enough to offset the lower overall number of young people.

Again, Sinn Féin will be most affected by what happens to the youth vote. Last Sunday's poll showed that its support changes much more across age cohorts than other parties, and those who back it are far more likely to be under 35. In the 18-35 cohorts, Sinn Féin commands 30pc support, far above any other party or all the Independents and small parties combined.

The government parties and Fianna Fáil may be silently hoping that youthful Sinn Féin supporters don't bother showing up at polling stations tomorrow.

The established parties can be more openly upbeat about the prospect of senior citizens voting for them.

Last Sunday's poll showed Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour each winning more support among the pensioner cohort than any other age group, at 33pc, 31pc and 9pc respectively.

That there are now almost 100,000 more people aged 65 and older in the State, compared with the last election, gives candidates of established parties a little more hope. That pensioners, who tend to have plenty of time on their hands, have the highest turnout by age groups, will give them plenty more.

Turnout is among the most neglected factors in analysis of elections. As the four referendums on the Nice and Lisbon treaties proved - it can be decisive (in both cases it was largely a surge in pro-EU voters turning out at second asking which swung the result, not a change of heart by those who voted No the first time).

Unless the opinion polls have got it completely wrong, the only viable coalition to emerge from tomorrow's vote is one combining the two Civil War parties.

But elections can often surprise. There have been changes in Ireland's demographics and the spread of jobs since the last election. These could be the source of some surprises when all the votes are counted.

Irish Independent

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