Growing Pains – The Conservatives and their Youth Crisis

The Conservatives are in crisis, not just in terms of their leadership, but in terms of ideas and future membership. The party has to ask itself real questions about policy, and in doing so, face up to where the next generation of Conservative voters is going to come from.

For most of my political life, I’ve known a Conservative government. As a very young teen, I saw New Labour as ‘the establishment’ – a cursory view of who tends to run this country reveals that to be manifestly false. On the whole, the Conservatives have had power. However, the lack of ideas from the Conservative Party could fracture this within my lifetime. The average Tory member is old, and getting older year on year. The Bow Group placed their average member at 72, whereas QMUL research places them at 57. Labour’s average member is anywhere between 53 and 42, but Labour has hundreds of thousands of them. The Conservatives have a relatively small membership base, and it isn’t clear where the next generation will come from. Young people do not like the Tory Party. Now, the Conservatives have always been older in terms of membership, but that’s never been a problem, because people tend to switch to them as they get older. In days gone by, people would get older, earn more, buy a house, have kids, get even older, and start to resist change. In other words, part of getting older, for many people, involved a metamorphosis into the Tory demographic. Cameron expanded this electoral coalition by being really appealing to young DINK (Dual Income, No Kids) couples. Cameron transformed the Tory party to focus on winning the votes of DINKS, affluent ethnic minorities and wealthy social liberals – and all those groups, plus the traditional Tory voter base, was enough of an electoral constituency to carry him over the line. However, home ownership is now a distant hope in many parts of the country, and in London and other metropolitan cities it has basically become a millennial punchline on Twitter. Wages are stagnating as productivity falls, and the budget does little to address this. Brexit, regardless of your thoughts on the EU, is unquestionably being bungled, and will likely leave us poorer. Our generation will get married older, and less frequently. In other words, the things that would ‘turn you Tory’ are disappearing for the young in this country. This is driving a wedge between what the Conservatives need to do to win 10 years from now and what they want to do now.

Let’s take what I believe to be the main bugbear of politics right now – our utterly broken housing system. There are not enough houses, both social and private. Landlords are, across the country, often just taking the piss. Housing is a basic concern of voters, and for 20 years has more or less driven the economy. Of course, the housing market is complex, and I’m not suggesting that I have the magic key to fixing it. However, if any Tories are reading this and wondering where to start, then I have some questions, a couple of suggestions, on how the Conservatives could win, outside the South-West[1] – A) Liberalise planning. B) Build more bloody houses. C) Take the buy-to-let market out round the back and quietly choke it to death.

To win voters 10 years from now, the Conservatives need to find a way to fix our country and its broken housing system. However, implementing fixes like the ones seen above damages them now, because it’s a sock in the face of their current electoral constituency. Building houses will upset rural and commuter-belt NIMBYS, and suffocating buy-to-let with a pillow will upset urban landlords, in whose economic interest it is to vote Tory. The general snuffling from the party about young people all being snowflakes or secretly having photos of Stalin under the bed are indicative of a party that really, really doesn’t want to have to do some hard thinking. Putting off a difficult assignment is fine when you’re a student (I’ve got through 9 boxes of mince pies and a fair amount of port, but very little by way of dissertation writing so far, if you’re wondering how my life choices are going) but it’s not really what you want the governing party of your country to do.

It’s not all just bricks and mortar. There is a cultural shift on social attitudes, too. One of the interesting things about polling is the way data will map onto predictions regarding voting. Leave voters broadly believe in other things, too – well-done steaks, a punitive prison system, Princess Diana.[2] Now, this is not to say that all Brexit voters are into these things, far from it. It’s simply pointing out the correlation between your thoughts on steak and Diana, and your vote in the referendum. The point here is that the data points to an increasing weight given to cultural component to political allegiance. The chances are, you have something similar going on in the psychological background to your politics. I have an instinctual revulsion towards Thatcherism owing to my birthplace of Liverpool. I certainly disagree with many Tory policies, but my not being a Tory is more than me liking Labour. I am Not A Tory as an identity. If I left Labour tomorrow, if I woke up and suddenly agreed with Tory thinking, I still wouldn’t identify as a Tory. Because, to me, being Not A Tory isn’t just something I do, by voting for Labour and writing about Labour, but rather something I am. The reason that I am Not A Tory for this is that I have more or less unchangeable opinions on things like the internet, feminism, and the UK/EU relationship. The issue that Tories will have is that an older membership will bring with it a certain sort of leader. The members will demand a leader like them, who will be far to the right of the young and middle aged.

This is where talk of political ‘brands’ come in. The Conservative brand has been damaged by Brexit and the election campaign. The fact is, social liberalism doesn’t really cost anything and is a great tool to get affluent metropolitans to sign up to the centre-right. The Tories pivot to the right has cost them votes, not just in the 2017 election but in future elections to come. They’ve painted themselves into a needlessly authoritarian corner. One of Vote Leave’s great achievements was to spin a narrative that told Commonwealth immigrants that a Leave vote would swing open the door for Commonwealth immigration as the door to Europe swung shut.  This narrative was fundamentally undeliverable – as QMUL’s Tim Bale writes ‘Similarly, while they [UK voters] might cope with a few thousand New Zealanders making their way to London, they are bound to baulk at millions of Indians and Chinese.’[3] In other words, by ameliorating concerns about immigration, the Leave campaign found a way to ensure their brand didn’t become totally toxic, which is one reason that people still identify so strongly with their vote in the Brexit referendum. May’s party doesn’t appear to be able to do this, as recent policy suggestions have either been underwhelming – their action on the housing market – or completely targeting the wrong electoral constituency – for instance their background noise about free speech and students. With social liberals likely gone for a generation, it’s difficult to see where the next generation of Conservatives comes from. Affluent graduates are likely to be frustrated at the lack of housing for some time, and that’s before the fact that Brexit will likely make them poorer. Talk of the next generation of Tories being working-class Leave voters is possible, but if it really comes down to ‘the economy, stupid’ then it’s difficult to see how austerity economics will wash. ‘We’ll defund your hospital, your public services, and your kid’s school’ will still likely go some way to trumping any cultural argument.  What is needed to win the upcoming elections is what it always has been – a blend of the right economic and social policy for the nation as it stands. The problem the Conservatives have is that they appear to have lost all ability to gauge what that might be.

[1] Yes. I’ve been listening to Hamilton again. Sue me.



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