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Getting the young involved in politics is a puzzle that pundits try to solve every election, then neglect in the intervening years. The dust settles, only to be brushed off again on the eve of the next poll. Memories are short.
Yet the issue is more pressing than ever, certainly for the Conservatives. Although early estimates of youth turnout after the election were daftly optimistic, the number seems to have been high: 58 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted – up 15 per cent from 2015.
This was bad news for the Tories. YouGov found that while 66 per cent of 18-19 year olds voted Labour, only 19 per cent voted Conservative. Among 18-29 year olds, it was little better: 64 per cent favoured Labour, with the Tories winning a paltry 21 per cent of their votes.
Although the young have never had much enthusiasm for the Conservative Party, this year’s figures make for particularly grim reading. It is a drastic fall in fortunes from 2015, when Labour was only 4 per cent ahead among of 18-29 year olds.
But if the Tory party is to reduce its reliance on the elderly, this decline cannot continue. Here are four steps the Tories should take to redress the balance.
First, the party must acknowledge it still has an image problem. David Cameron took steps to change this. By striking a delicate balance between fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, he chipped away at the preconceptions of the Conservative Party among the young. His modern branding saw the Tories return to power after 13 years in the wilderness, but now this hard work is being undone.
It is an irony lost on few Tory modernisers that the woman who coined the phrase “the nasty party” has set about retoxifying it. By breaking from Cameron’s social liberalism, and focusing on marginalia like fox hunting, Theresa May has alienated the young once more. Pursuing a hard Brexit, in which arbitrary immigration caps are favoured over economic pragmatism, has only compounded the problem.
Second, the Conservative Party must make a retail offer to the young. Nick Timothy’s so-called Erdington conservatism was antiquated – all grammar schools, industrial strategy and fox hunting. It failed to look to the future and address the concerns of young voters. The party gave the young few reasons to vote for them and plenty of reasons not to.
It is unfair to call Labour’s tuition fee policy a bribe, but it was carefully targeted at millennials. While Conservatives should reject this regressive subsidy, such an eye-catching policy is a good way of attracting the young. Margaret Thatcher turned a generation of working class voters into Tories by letting them buy their homes. Young people, crippled by rising rents, are slowly realising they may never do the same. So the Tories need to do something similar for them.
There is much they could do to make the party more attractive, such as helping with tuition fees – putting a cap on the outrageous interest rates would be a start – or allowing house building on the green belt. If the young gain capital, they may become capitalists.
Third, fear is not an attractive political philosophy. Campaigns based on fear have lost the Tories the London mayoralty, membership of the European Union, and now a parliamentary majority. Sir Lynton Crosby, the political strategist and architect of two of these campaigns, is unlikely to see the inside of No 10 again. The mantra of “strong and stable”, which Theresa May was persuaded into repeating ad nauseam, must be one of the worst political slogans ever.
Young people want a positive, authentic message. David Cameron knew this and wanted “people to feel good about being a Conservative again”, which is why he started hugging huskies in the Arctic and asked for sympathy towards those wearing hoodies. That seems a long time ago now.
Jeremy Corbyn, for all his baggage and flaws, offered hope. He held rallies, turned up to debates, and discussed his vision of a post-austerity future. Meanwhile, the Conservatives spent £1.2m on anti-Corbyn adverts – Project Fear in another guise. It is easy to disparage the ethereal “politics of hope” but compare the negativity of May’s national campaign with the ebullience of Ruth Davidson north of the border. Then compare the results.
Fourth, to expound this positive vision, the party needs a new leader. May’s reputation has been shattered by the appalling campaign during which she hid from the cameras and voters, and took her victory for granted. Her farcical wheat field rebellion was ridiculed relentlessly across social media. She may limp on for now, but with no majority and little hope of cross-party support, she will not fight another election.
When the inevitable removal occurs, the party should look for a candidate who can expand the Tories’ appeal beyond their base, to the young. Most of the current frontrunners fail this test. But in 2005, a little known MP, advocating “moderate, compassionate conservatism”, rose without trace. The party should ensure something similar happens next time, and there are plenty of MPs that fit the bill – James Cleverly, Jo Johnson, Heidi Allen, and Tom Tugendhat, to name a few.
The cycle of youthful liberalism and middle-aged conservatism is hard to reverse. But at present the Tories aren’t even trying, and you do wonder if they realise there is a problem. It’s not enough to wait for young liberals to become old conservatives. Conservatives must work to win the young round.
This doesn’t mean fighting an attritional meme war. It doesn’t mean winning the backing of the grime scene; the young see through such masquerades. It means showing they actually care. While Corbyn mentioned the young in every speech, May neglected them both in message and offer. With youth turnout on the rise and the young engaged in politics again, this must change if the party is to survive.
David Siesage, aged 24, is a law student with big student loans.