Bad spreadsheets (election edition)

So: YouGov tells us that if only under-40s voted in next month's general election, "Jeremy Corbyn would be heading to Downing Street". In the words of YouGov pollster Chris Curtis, "age is the new dividing line in British politics", replacing social class as the most significant correlate of voter preference. But young people, famously, don't vote very much. And so, Polly Toynbee says, "To save the young from themselves, it’s time to march them down to the polling station, making voting compulsory, at least the first time."

Theresa May, 1971

Meanwhile other professional opiners as disparate as Liam Byrne and Aaron Bastani tell us that Labour has to appeal to older, largely more conservative voters -- as Bastani insists, it can't win with the millenial vote because it's concentrated in urban areas, whereas its the shires that swing it.

So: is a centrist Labour Party appealing to rightward older voters a demographic necessity if it wants to take power? Or is there demographic wiggle-room for a leftist agenda backed by a young vote, if the under-40s turn out to vote in sufficient numbers?

This seems like a central question in British electoral politics -- and perhaps the central question for the parliamentary left. I was quite surprised that I couldn't find any recent modelling on the impact of youth turnout on 2017 election predictions ( there surely has to be some, and it's likely I'm not looking hard enough).

So instead, being a fan of half-arsery to inform my political prejudices, I spent ten minutes with an Excel spreadsheet.

It was a depressing ten minutes. If you take the size of the UK voting-age population within different age brackets, and plug them into both (1) age-specific polling on 2017 voting intentions, and (2) age-specific turnout figures from the 2015 general election, then you can roughly estimate the number of votes that different parties will receive in 2017, if turnout amongst different age groups is similar to that in 2015:

Votes, GE 2017, if turnout at 2015 levels

Age group 18-19 20-24 25-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60-69 70+ TOTAL %
Con 149826 443211 695497 1675171 2368265 2960161 3108403 3714204 15114739 44%
Lab 292843 775620 1007272 1624409 1578843 1547357 888115 754448 8468906 25%
Lib Dem 122585 295474 287792 761441 789422 672764 555072 464275 3948826 12%
UKIP 27241 92336 119913 355339 667972 807317 499565 464275 3033959 9%
Other 88534 240073 311775 659916 728697 672764 444058 348207 3494022 10%

Then you can see what happens if, say, there's a 75% turnout in all age brackets (in 2015, over-50s turned out at around 78-79%, under-25s at around 43%):

Votes, GE 2017, if turnout at 75% in all age brackets

Age group18-1920-2425-2930-3940-4950-5960-6970+TOTAL%
Lib Dem213812515362399711951802870686638700533723446419457021412%

The Tories lose just 2 percent of the vote share to Labour. Still a recipe for a landslide.

Indeed, to demonstrate the demographic impossibility of it all: let's imagine that turnout was 100% in all age brackets -- compulsory voting ,say -- and everyone aged between 18 and 30 voted Labour, with everyone else voting as they intend to do this time round:

Votes, GE 2017, if turnout at 100% in all age brackets and all 18-30 vote Labour

Age group18-1920-2425-2930-3940-4950-5960-6970+TOTAL%
Lib Dem0001269069116091485160071163159522545884399%

It would take a youth result of these Jong-Il-ian dimensions, in other words, for Labour to get a lead of just 1% in the vote share.

There's everything wrong with this simplistic model, of course: it assumes that non-voters have the same split of voting preferences as voters; it assumes that population translates straightforwardly into electorate; it ignores regional differences; it completely ignores the fact that FPTP doesn't translate vote share straight-forwardly into seats (though in only one general election, in February 1974, did one of the two main parties actually win more seats than the other with a (fractionally) lower share of the vote); and so on and so on.

So I'd be very keen to see some better modelling, and at constituency level. There must surely be some places where getting the youth vote out could swing seats.

But overall, even on this crudest of models, it looks like voter registration and voter turnout won't -- can't -- even seriously dent the Tories, let alone stop them. And that the myth that sofa-bound young people can rise up and rock the vote is just that: a patronising myth to hide the basic fact of British electoral physiology that you can't turn a pear into an apple. I suspect the same is true of BME communities, though I haven't looked into the figures.

Young people are a minority in post-demographic-transition societies: a relatively powerless, relatively property-less, minority. They differ from other minorities, of course, because they are destined over time to become the majority. But then they won't be young, and the policies they make or ratify likewise won't have the same impact on them as on others younger than them.

Perhaps, therefore, instead of either haranguing or misleading young people about their electoral potential in the face of their (rational) electoral apathy, we need to start doing what we do for other powerless minorities in majoritarian democracies: require legal safeguards to ensure that their interests are not unjustly ignored or damaged in the political process, precisely because the electoral process can't provide such safeguards. What if there was a statutory requirement that all legislation had to be tested not only against human rights and equalities law, but against its differential impact on those with longer futures? Wouldn't that automatically lead to better, long-term thinking and decision-making in politics? What would a Finance Bill look like against such a legislative test? What would such a legislative test itself look like? Could we even argue -- perhaps in court -- that the Equalities Act 2010 already provides for such a test, by including "age" amongst "protected characteristics"?

Meanwhile, suggestions greatly appreciated for more (or less oafishly used) data...


New blog, new website

I have a shiny new website here ; and will be blogging on 'professional' topics (finance/tax/conflict/weapons) over there, hopefully with more regularity.

Personal and scurrilous material will still go here!


Where have all the tax avoiders gone?

A new holding company created in the Cayman Islands expressly to sell assets worth tens of millions of dollars. Those assets assigned an accounting value of zero, effectively invisible in the company’s balance sheet. An “arbitrary” US$10,000 cash injection explicitly designed to activate a tax law permitting a “total tax free gain of about US$60 million”, calibrated not to affect the “commercial effects of the transaction”.

Obligatory tax-blog picture of the Cayman Islands. Pretty, isn't it. (Creative Commons slack12/Flickr)

What label should we give to engineered offshore transactions designed to avoid paying tax? I used to think I knew the answer to that question, but as 2014 draws another turbulent year of tax controversies to a close, I’m not so sure.

An odd cross-current has become detectable in the “tax avoidance” debate this year. The professional and business side of the debate used to be dominated by a fairly standard position: boiler-plate defensiveness crossed with ‘Duke-of-Westminster’ fundamentalism about the legal and ethical neutrality of shrinking one’s tax bill to the legal minimum. Over the last twelve to eighteen months almost every vocal big business, business association and tax professional body has moved away from that previous default. Almost everyone now accepts that choices between filing positions have consequences – if not ethical then at least reputational - that taxpayers should take into account. But in the next breath there tends to follow a second sentiment: that one’s own behaviour has either already changed, or didn’t need to change in the first place; that the scale of corporate tax avoidance has been overblown; and that in any case the corporate income tax isn’t a very good idea to start with.