Older people are the key to sustaining local democracy

When older people appear in mainstream political debate, it tends to be in the context of the policy challenges presented by what has become known as the ‘ageing society’. However, Vicky Randall argues that older people make an enormous and largely unheralded contribution to sustaining local democracy, which is suffering greatly from an increase in voter apathy and scepticism about the power of politics.


Older people on a march in Devon (Credit: tomroper, CC BY 2.0)

We hear little about older people in British political studies. When they are discussed it tends to be in terms of the policy challenges their growing numbers and longevity pose, especially in the areas of health and social care. There is much less interest in their role as political actors. The main exception is voting; it is well-established that electoral turnout for older people is significantly higher than for other age groups, particularly the young. Otherwise the few existing studies of older people’s political participation are already dated and have been undertaken by sociologists and gerontologists. But such research is needed both to counteract the endlessly depressing focus on the old as a ‘problem’ and to discover more precisely what kinds of contribution they make to our political life.

Of course an immediate issue is what is meant by older people. The notion of old age is elusive. There is a difference between ‘chronological’ age and the age a person subjectively feels. Old age can last over many decades, in contrast say to being a teenager, leading to distinctions like Third and Fourth Age and ‘oldest old’. The category of ‘older people’ is characterised by marked inequalities and by other kinds of diversity. Age may or may not constitute a significant part of a person’s sense of identity.

My research has focused on older people (defined as 65 and over) in political parties. It is clear that Britain’s population is ageing, if not at the apocalyptic rate sometimes implied in media coverage. By 2012, 16 per cent of the UK’s population were aged 65 and over, as compared with 13.2 per cent in 1971. Longevity is also increasing. Political party membership is thought to be ageing even more rapidly than the population at large, though it is difficult to get precise figures.An internet-based survey five years back led by Paul Whiteley suggested an average age of 50 for Labour Party members, 55 for Conservative members and 51 for Liberal Democrats members. But other estimates put the Conservative average as high as 67 or 68.

My research in five constituencies, three in the London Borough of Barnet and two in Hertfordshire, confirms this pattern of ageing membership. I found older people filling the full range of available roles as local party officers, local councillors – well over a third of Barnet councillors are aged 65 and over -, activists, more passive members and also non-member ‘friends’ and supporters (the precise range of roles varied between parties, constituencies and even wards). My interviews were aimed at discovering what older members were able to contribute, what motivated them and whether and how they might also be a problem.

Perhaps the key resource that older people were seen to contribute was time, both the amount they could dedicate to party work and also the fact that they could be available at ‘unusual’ times, for instance in the middle of weekdays. Another positive quality frequently mentioned could be summarised as experience. This took two main forms: they could bring to bear their experiences and skills, for instance as accountants or administrators, drawn from a lifetime of paid employment. One respondent referred to them as ‘people who are capable of running things’. Many also had long experience of the local party itself, thereby helping to provide continuity and ‘corporate memory’. Older members’ contribution to fund-raising was also frequently commented upon, especially in the Conservative Party and more affluent Liberal Democrat wards.  And it was suggested that they could provide a valuable ‘link to the community’.

Motivations of older members clearly varied with role; in addition whilst some may have made a conscious decision to become more involved around the time they retired from paid employment, others may always or for a long time have been party members so that continuing in that role reflects a degree of habit or inertia. ‘Social’ motivations were seen to play a large part, especially amongst local Conservative activists but ideological motives were also emphasised: ‘I do it because it’s right’. Other answers referred to the need to keep busy in retirement, to continue to ‘feel part of the world outside’ and sustain and develop community ties.

The most frequently cited drawbacks to older members’ contributions were associated withphysical limitations. Most brutally ‘They die’; more generally ‘They don’t have the same energy (ie. as younger people)’. It was regularly suggested that they were less willing or able to actively canvass, or ‘knock on doors’. Another potential shortcoming was inflexibility, a possible negative side of the ‘experience’ earlier identified as positive: ‘We’ve always done it like this’. But most respondents did not see either inflexibility or specifically resistance to modern technologies of communication as a major problem, suggesting it varied more with individuals than with age, except perhaps amongst the very old. Finally, when prompted, some respondents agreed that the preponderance of older members could act as a deterrent when seeking to recruit younger members, though this was not seen as a main reason for young people’s reluctance to join.

Overall this research confirms that in comparison with other age groups, older people’s participation in local parties is substantial and wide ranging, even if active involvement tapers off in later old age. Older people contribute time, skills and experience, generate funding and act as a link with the community. Though physical limitations can be a problem, inflexibility is seen as more an individual than an age-related trait. Many consider older people’s contribution essential to the maintenance and survival of local party organization.

Whilst at local level there may be some recognition of this contribution, nationally there is little evidence that party leaders appreciate their older troops. There is little discussion about ways to cater for or retain them. None of the parties have specialist organizations, even on paper, to represent their interests and voices.

In the Conservative Party specifically this may partly reflect a modernising leadership’s exasperation with the right-wing attitudes of its ‘swivel-eyed’ grass-roots membership. But in all three main parties it is first because in a visual media-dominated age they are anxious to project a youthful and dynamic image, as witnessed in the relative youthfulness of all three party leaders and in the staging of the recent round of annual party conferences. Most importantly the leadership associate the disproportionate presence of older members with a secular and well-documented decline in overall party membership. For many years now, the leaderships have struggled unsuccessfully to reverse this tide. Whilst the prevalence of older participants is seen as a symptom, and possible cause, of overall membership decline, party leaders will probably continue to underestimate and fail publicly to recognise their more positive contribution.

Political scientists may also disagree as to the value of their contribution in sustaining local party organization. Some question the importance for contemporary political parties, with professionalized bureaucracies and given rapidly developing communications media, of active grassroots organizations. Many others however convincingly argue that maintaining effective grassroots organization is vital for the long term health not simply of parties but of democracy.

Note: this post originally appeared on the PSA blog and can be seen here. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. The shortened URL for this post is: http://buff.ly/1cDTbNC

Vicky Randall is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Government, University of Essex.

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