The politics of not being dead

  1. Old voters and ex-voters

There’s a graph going round that shows 69% of people over 70 voting Tory at the general election.

The common explanation for this is that this reflects, as Robert Colvile puts it, the Tories’ “natural demographic advantage.” That is, people become more rightwing as they get older.

There is undoubtedly something in this, although why it has happens is a different matter [1]

In any event, it cannot be the only explanation for the huge Tory majority in this age group, for the simple reason that social class remains relevant to the way people vote, though the correlation has weakened.

The other explanation is less often given.

This explanation is that 69% of all over 70s vote Tory because a lot of the voters of this age who would have voted Labour are dead.

In other words, it is (in large part) the enduring and well proven correlation between being poor and dying earlier wot won it for the Tories.

In other, other words, Tory election victories could be seen as a voter suppression in extremis: keep Labour voter numbers under control by maintaining social inequalities inequality in the mortality , and continued Tory electoral success will surely follow.


Or maybe not.

The obvious rejoinder from a Tory enjoying her/his “natural demographic” is that her/his still-living opponents should focus on winning elections with popular leaders and policies, and then prove that they can reduce health inequalities, rather than indulge in trivial, counterfactual whining about what might have been had history turned out differently [2].

And the temptation is, for those involved in trying to deliver social justice, to accept that, and move on, because we can do for the living what we cannot do for the dead.

But — and this is my main contention — perhaps we shouldn’t just accept that the health inequality/voter loss correlation is a trivial, if depressing, point.

Perhaps, instead, it might be the genesis of a powerful argument for a change in the left conceptualizes its politics.

2. The politics of the right not to be dead

At it’s most basic, there are two ways of doing socialist politics.

In the first, which covers both the Marxian tradition and much of the (British social democratic), equality and progress are brought about by strategic action, with the most obvious of these being the development of policies popular enough to win a popular vote, and a set of arguments designed to denigrate the other side’s policies. Into this strategic action is built a set of considerations about how best to sell the case, often linked to leadership.

The second way of doing socialist politics is procedural, and is in a more liberal tradition of universal rights and morality.

In Rawlsian terms, this means a politics which embodies “justice as fairness”, where social justice is closely equated to equality and comes about by the establishment of social institutions embodying a (presupposed) moral commitment to “a duty of fair play”.

In the more developed conception of Habermas, where a communicative ethics grounded in universal pragmatics then grounds the morality that Rawls assumes, fair procedures for open communication and deliberation become a normative requirement for an enlightened society (see also Bernard Williams’ “state of nature” and the need for cooperation intrinsic to human societies).

Whichever ethical route is chosen, what we end up with is a politics which claims that equal rights to participation in society is potentially the more effective route to social justice (aka effective socialism) than the antagonisms that dominate most socialist praxis.

Habermas’ maxim that socialism will only be delivered “via the eye of the needle of liberalism” is, effectively, a recommendation that socialists, (in the face of the monolith of capitalism described despairingly by Adorno, Marcuse and others) are better employed fostering rational discourse, rather than fomenting strategic class-focused discord, because rational discoure leads, by the very nature of its rationality, to egalitarian policy [3].

3. Towards a richer notion of freedom than not being dead

Being dead is, most people would agree [4], is the biggest barrier to participation in society.

Such a statement is not, if we adopt a procedural/deliberative approach to our politics, a triviality. It is why the right to life is set, at article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, alongside the rights to liberty and security of person. Nor is the right to life, construed in Rawlsian/Habermasian terms, simply a question of not being killed. It is a question of lifespan with others, and of everything that lies behind that.

If we accept this as socialists, via an acceptance that the best route to social justice is equality of participation and deliberation, then there are two main consequences.

First, the very right to participate should start to take precedence over the subject matter of participation. We need to have the confidence that, where freedoms and rights are furthered for individuals, collective justice and equality will emerge. We do not need to control debate, only to promote equal access to it.

This promotion of access starts with the right to life, but flows into other rights: to education, of association, of say in the workplace, of the right to say your piece, of the categorical right to be silenced when you stop others saying theirs.

We need, as Anthony Painter has wisely put it, to develop a “rich notion of freedom”, as an essential precursor to a juster world. [5]

Second, and just as importantly for our conception of how to politics, the right to an equal lifespan on equal quality will need to be constantly reset. It will not be sufficient to reset once, and by implication a commitment to the procedural/deliberative socialism I set out here does demand a shift, ultimately in policy terms, to an egalitarianism of outcome rather than one simply of opportunity. This is a challenge to mainstream leftwing thinking and, indeed, practice.


[1] The so-called “natural demographic advantage” may be because many people of this generation came to fix their political beliefs when the postwar settlement was being brought into question via the state overload thesis and the birth of neoliberalism. It may also/instead be because of a broader shift in values related to the consumerist society (my own ‘doorstep’ experience is that people into their 80s tend to stay loyal to Labour because their values were formed more directly post-war, and are focused more on integrity-as-producer than respectability-as-consumer).

[2] Of course, the same could be argued about the rightwing claim that Labour immigration policy has been designed to import Labour supporters, but the anti-counterfactual argument somehow seems stronger when the difference between being not dead and dead (perhaps this is why some of Parfit’s moral theory is so conceptually difficult.)

[3] I am struck by the relevance here of Chris Dillow’s recent conclusion, reached by quite different route:

If you are serious about wanting free markets you must put in place the conditions which are necessary for them — namely, greater bargaining power for tenants, customers and workers. This requires not just strong anti-monopoly policies but also policies such as a high citizens income, full employment and mass housebuilding.”

While Chris says equality leads to freedom of markets, I take a stronger, Habermasian position. Equality of process (and all Chris’s policies form this process) leads to justice.

[4] I say only that most people agree being dead is the biggest barrier to participation. There is, of course, an argument for martyrdom as strong participation. I do not mean this altogether jokingly, and nor did Arendt when she wrote

In addition, there is the bold Parfitian notion that death does not really exist as commonly conceived, and this argument against singular identity could be used as an argument against the universal principle of the right to life(span).

[5] Anthony focuses on the need for the development of institutions to foster freedoms. I think this underestimates the need to forefront participation in the building of those institutions, catalyzed by grassroots democratic associationalism, but we are increasingly on the same wavelength.



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Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.