Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
The dust has settled after June’s election, and, to put it mildly, the Conservative Party still has a Young Person Problem. Every week, YouGov releases a colourful new info-graphic detailing the voting intentions of 18-24 year-olds, and, in each revision, the red section of the pie graph has gobbled up a little more of the blue.
The proposed remedies range from charmingly naïve – a beaming middle-aged politician informed me the other day that he’d just heard of an insurgent new Facebook group called “Unilad”, and if only the Conservatives could find an in-road there, membership would double in a day – to downright stupid (I’m putting the Jacob Rees-Mogg Snapchat filter idea, suggested to me by a wild-eyed young activist, in the latter category).
If the Conservatives are to have any chance of success at the next election, these cringe-worthy initiatives must be ditched and replaced with what I’m going to call the “Tim Martin philosophy”.
The story, possibly apocryphal, goes that in 1979, Tim Martin, a disillusioned young barrister, decided to leave the law behind him and set up a new pub. Where most wannabe-landlords would have surveyed local pub-goers to discover what gimmicks would appeal, the young Martin and his team took the opposite approach: they asked a group of people who never went to pubs what it was that put them off, and made damn sure his pub did those things right. The result was a very ordinary pub, but one which never served mean pints, never closed its kitchen at two o’clock, and never had dirty toilets.
He called it JD Wetherspoons.
The moral the Conservatives need to learn is that sometimes, shiny new tricks are not the answer. New research published this week shows that young people are now so pessimistic about the future that as many as one in three of them wish they had been born at an earlier time. Against this rather bleak backdrop, attempts to make the Conservative Party seem “cool” and exciting will always strike a hollow note. The answer to the Conservatives youth problem is not to superimpose a few memes on top of the June failure, but to take a long hard look at what went wrong, and make sure that it never happens again.
First, the inter-party Brexit rows need to end. The logic of ultra-remainers like Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry seems to be that because most young people voted to remain in the EU in 2016, they’ll go doe-eyed when they see middle-aged Tory MPs nit-picking each and every Brexit bill as it passes through the Commons. Anna Soubry has now taken to Twitter (it’s pretty hip don’t you know) to publicise her voting rebellions and advocate #love.
This approach is so misguided it’s difficult to know where to begin. For a start, although the majority of young people came down on the side of remain, a lot weren’t that bothered either way. Speaking as someone who not only voted Remain but even owned a Stronger In t-shirt, I can reveal that it took me about 48 hours to cheerfully accept the Referendum result, and another 76 to pretty much forget about referendum altogether. I wanted to stay in the EU, but once the thing was done, I moved on with my life.
I won’t be as presumptuous as to assume that everyone my age (I’m 23) is quite as fickle as me, but I know for a fact that a good deal share my sentiments to some extent. Few, I would wager, kept up to date with the white paper releases over the summer, and of that few, a vanishingly small number would get excited by Conservative back-bench Brexit-blocking schemes.
For those who aren’t obsessed with the pretty dry soap that is Brexit (and I would count most young people in that category), the impression left by the ultra-remainer/ultra-Brexiteer war, is one of a divided party so riddled with angst about a single issue that it has stopped caring about the rest of the country. The Conservative Party airing its dirty laundry is both boring and unattractive, and the sought after 18-24s really aren’t enjoying the spectacle.
Second, the party needs to stop indulging in class warfare. During the election, Theresa May and her Special Advisors focussed their attention on appealing to the “lower-middle classes”. The argument was that the “Just About Managings” in places like Stoke and Cornwall had won Leave the referendum, so that meant they could jolly well win the Conservatives the General Election. All the Prime Minister had to do was go on The One Show and talk about eating beans on toast for “tea” (or whatever rubbish she came out with) and the lower-middle classes would swoon.
Setting aside the fact this approach was obviously both horribly patronising and excruciating to watch, it also overlooked an important subtlety: the rigid class system which has underpinned British politics for centuries is finally beginning to erode. Although most millennials could, if pushed, distinguish between upper, middle, and working class, the sub-divisions within those divisions are now so blurry they are impossible to make out.
Among my own group of friends, I struggle to think of a single one who could neatly be labelled as “lower” or “upper” middle class. There’s the daughter of parents who grew up in council flats who is now a wealthy investment banker living in Chelsea; the son of estate owners from Yorkshire who is working on the supermarket checkouts while he looks for an opening in publishing; and an academic who was adopted by self-made millionaire Australian immigrants.
These people (already tricky to pin down) will change professions, get promotions, marry, and fall in with different social circles hundreds of times in the next five years alone, and with each life change, they will flit in and out of the antiquated social boundaries. Attempting to pin them down and target their “class concerns” is the political equivalent of trying to hold a litre of oily water in cupped hands.
Being a Conservative never is, never was, and never will be cool. Watching Conservative MPs using Instagram will always be like watching your mum dancing at a family wedding: at best, endearing, at worst, cringe-worthy, but never, ever inspiring. The Conservative Party is at its best when it stops thinking of clever optic tricks to make the party seem “hip”, and actually concentrates on real policies.
And slowly but surely, the penny is dropping. At last, after months of allowing desperate fringe groups like the bizarre Moggmentum and casually racist Activate hold the reins, the Prime Minister and her team are finally Taking Back Control. Serious thought is now being given to designing policies to win back young voters, including a review of the 6.1 per cent interest rate on student loans paid while people are at university and ways to boost the supply of affordable homes.
The task ahead is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. If the Conservative Party is able to weed out the rot from the last election, Wetherspoons style, then there’s a good chance that some young, entrepreneurial and aspirational people will start listening to their policy ideas once again. They will never have crowds cheering at Glastonbury, but a strong and stable base of young supporters would get them further than they might imagine.