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Class is the basis of British party politics” asserted political scientist Peter Pulzer in 1967.

However, contemporary dynamics have shifted significantly. Social class no longer reliably predicts voting behaviour, as demonstrated in the 2019 general election where age emerged as a decisive factor. According to the British Election Study, Labour secured 54% of votes from under-35s, but only won 22% among those aged 55 and above. Meanwhile, the Conservatives captured 56% of the over-55 vote but only 24% among the under-35s. This stark generational divide underscores the depth of intergenerational inequity in the UK, positioning the political interests and representatives of the young and old in apparent opposition.

However, intergenerational inequity is not itself a problem. We expect there to be significant differences between old and young. Having lived and worked longer we expect older generations to be wealthier and perhaps have a higher standard of living. However, we can also understand intergenerational inequity as a way of describing a set of problems which may be less natural and less just. Some of these problems include a systemic failure to build new homes, unsustainable accumulation of government debt, and a failure to address the challenges presented by climate change.

However, it is far too simple to argue that the appropriate government response to intergenerational inequity is to straightforwardly tackle the problems noted above. Politics must not become a battle between the opposing interests of the young and the old, with successive governments simply swinging between building homes and then blocking further development, borrowing against the future and then cutting back on deficits, and so on. There must be a long-term settlement between generations which does not deepen inequity and disconnection but resolves it. Instead of a surface-level approach, the underlying causes of inequity must be addressed.

At the roots, intergenerational inequity is caused by the underrepresentation of young people combined with crippling short-termism. Only by addressing these factors can we reach a fair intergenerational settlement. However, to reach this settlement, a two-pronged approach, which advances a radical programme for change, is needed.

Young people in the UK face a significant obstacle in having their voices heard compared to the older generation. This discrepancy in political influence stems from lower voter turnout among the youth, often misattributed to perceived civic disinterest or laziness. However, the actual reason is less dramatic: young people frequently change addresses.

The power of a voting bloc is closely tied to registration on the electoral roll, and older individuals, with more stable addresses, tend to be registered at a higher rate. Data from the electoral commission reveals a stark contrast in registration percentages, with 96% of those over 65 registered compared to 67% of 20-24 year olds and 74% of 24-35 year olds. 95% of owner occupiers (typically older) are registered, in contrast to 65% of private renters (often younger).

A clear correlation emerges between the duration of residence and voter registration, ranging from 39% for those at an address for up to a year to 95% for those residing at the same address for 16 years or more. The stable addresses of older individuals provide them with a numerical advantage at the ballot box, and even when they change addresses, they are just as slow to re-register.

This systemic issue poses a serious challenge to democracy, contributing to intergenerational inequity. Young people’s interests are inadequately represented in policymaking, and as a voting bloc, they don’t benefit from the preferential treatment given to the ‘grey vote’ by politicians.

Outlined below are three steps that the government should take to overcome this.

Reforming voter registration is not something which has ever been at the top of the agenda for the Labour Party or Conservatives, but is an essential step in enfranchising the estimated 8 million people who are eligible to vote but unregistered. This group is overwhelmingly younger and can easily be brought on to the electoral roll through a number of small changes. Voter registration could be integrated with other processes where there is often a change of address such as updating your drivers licence or starting a course at university. The government could also offer an online service to find out if you are registered or not. For a government which is seriously committed to democratic inclusion and solving intergenerational inequity, they could even begin piloting same-day voter registration so nobody who wants to legitimately engage in politics is turned away.

Additionally, the government must give greater recognition and prestige to forms of democratic participation other than the ballot box such as citizens assemblies and e-democracy. This bold approach to creating a more inclusive democracy would open up new pathways for the equitable and just representation of the whole British population. It is not just young people who have become disillusioned with the traditional cycle of elections, although younger generations would particularly benefit from more explicitly representative forms of participation. Technology has offered up vast possibilities for democratic engagement, and its time the government seized on these to ensure young people are heard as much as the older generations.

Finally, the government should ease laws restricting freedom of assembly and speech for those expressing their views on the streets. The right to protest is a fundamental aspect of democratic participation. Recent protests on racial justice and sustainability, led predominantly by underrepresented young people, highlight the importance of protecting their rights. This is particularly crucial when campaigning on intergenerational issues like climate change.

The second problem a government should address to reduce intergenerational inequity is short-termism. Many commentators around Westminster have long bemoaned the plague of short-termism. It contributes to intergenerational inequality in two ways: firstly, it fails to consider the welfare of future generations, as decisions made today have lasting impacts. Secondly, it prioritizes election-winning tactics over long-term economic strategies for growth. Even the government operates as though an election is always approaching and every decision must be a vote winner. To reduce intergenerational inequity, we should instead develop a system where decisions are shaped by the costs and benefits it can bring, even twenty years ahead. However, overcoming this short-termist plague will require a radical agenda for change.

A decisive move to end the short-termist cycle of trying to win votes over sound decision-making is breaking up the Treasury. There must be no doubt that significant changes to the establishment structure of political decision-making will be needed to overcome short-termist thinking. The current functions of the Treasury as a budgetary office, combined with its financial and economic responsibilities, is a recipe for short-termist disaster. The Treasury has become prone to what are now commonly-known as “wheezes” where policies are announced or money is spent not because of any great need, but because of political justifications. This certainly does not contribute to any long-term objectives. Instead to any extent that it does provide benefits, those benefits are enjoyed in the short-term at the expense of future generations as borrowing grows and resources are expended unsustainably. Aside from “wheezes”, the combination of the Treasury’s accounting and budgeting functions often mean departments do not receive the funding they actually need. In recent years, we have seen this manifest itself in cuts to capital expenditure and preparation for future challenges.

Intergenerational inequity will certainly be exacerbated by the continuation of this approach by the Treasury. The surest way to break the short-termist habits in the Treasury is to divide up its responsibilities and powers more rationally. Separate departments for budget management, economic growth, and microeconomic and tax policy would promote greater long-termism in government spending and the tax system. Additionally, the government should commit to ending the current, largely performative, process of Autumn Statements and Spring Budgets which encourage “wheezes” of spending and tax cuts for short-term political reasons. Finally, separating the accountancy side of the Treasury from its growth responsibilities will allow a move away from a short-term static obsession with the immediate impact of policies. Embracing dynamic forecasting will offer longer-term insights into how policies will impact behaviour and future generations over time. The IFS has noted that “short-run scorecard impacts should not govern long-term policy choices” and this will be an important step in encouraging longer-term choices that avoid detriment to younger generations.

The government must take bold steps to address intergenerational inequity at its core. We are faced with a political system that is not attuned to the democratic voice of young people and is institutionally incapable of thinking long-term enough to properly cater to the needs of both the young and the old. Reforming voter registration, refreshing the way we think about democratic participation, and challenging outdated Whitehall institutions which are plagued by short-termism are important steps the government should take to reduce intergenerational inequity.

Reducing intergenerational inequity is a monumental task which demands monumental reform to alter the way government operates and the way our political class thinks about the future. These are radical changes, but the need to bridge divides, combat inequities and prepare for the future has never been greater.

Callum Westwood is the winner of Bright Blue’s Tamworth Prize 2023.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not those of Bright Blue.