Why is Theresa May so deeply unpopular among the young? The answer usually trotted out goes something like this: half of Britain’s under 30s are earnest socialists who believe that Jeremy Corbyn is the best thing since the dog ear snap chat filter, and the rest parrot their contemporaries because they live in a Twitter echo chamber where socialism is cool.
A month ago, this sort of half-baked thinking worked fine. The middle-aged, traditional, Brexit-voting JAMs would win Strong and Stable Mrs May the election, and the recalcitrant youths (who don’t vote anyway) could be brought on board at a later date. Now, of course, the tide has turned. While the gap in the polls has been closing, over 2 million under 35s have registered to vote. All of a sudden, failing to identify exactly why Mayism holds so little appeal for the young is looking less like a lazy oversight and more like a serious campaign failure.
Enter Chris Coghlan, Independent candidate for Battersea, South West London. Coghlan is being billed by his supporters as the litmus test for a new Centrist pro-Europe party, and it’s no accident that he’s standing in the second youngest and best-educated constituency in the country. While the Conservatives have been bowing their heads and taking it as read that all young people are socialists, Coghlan has been pursuing the young voters they haven’t even realised they’ve left behind. His targets are not the hysterical left-wing tweeters, nor the stuffy Tatler Tories, but the swathes of economically liberal, ambitious graduates who populate the SW postcodes.
As a 2015 graduate working in my first job, I’m pretty familiar with this type: they were my contemporaries at university, and my Battersea neighbours now. My twenty-something friends and colleagues are representative of hundreds of thousands of millennials who graduated after the effects of the 2008 recession were subsiding and moved to big cities to take up promising job offers. They are optimistic, entrepreneurial, and, although not at all politically active, they are naturally drawn to free market economics and normally sway towards the Conservatives come election time.
Riddled with debt and living in dodgy “house shares”, they could be branded as Just About Managings – but this is most certainly not how they see themselves. The term, with its defeatist and vaguely dismal ring, just does not resonate with the youthful and optimistic. These people have dived headfirst into a lifetime of student debt and now they are working 12 hour days for money instantly gobbled up by rent. Yet though they gripe about their lives over a cheap bottle of wine, they never actually consider themselves to be struggling to get by – their lives are tough because they are investing in brighter futures.
In 20 years’ time, many of these Battersea graduates may well be struggling to feed their children, right now, they don’t want to about hear about it. Yet in this election campaign, it’s all they are getting. The language of mundane, lifelong struggle characterises Erdington Toryism, named after the lower middle-class part of Birmingham from which Nick Timothy hails. It repels these voters and has completely displaced the language of opportunity (which would attract them).
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From Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher and then David Cameron, Conservative leaders have invoked the ladder metaphor come election time. And it works. For young people working long hours in their first jobs, the state as a provider of support on the way up is a far more attractive idea than the state as a net to catch you when you fall.
But this time around, while Mrs May has patronised “JAMS” on the (deeply unglamorous) One Show, Independent Chris Coghlan has stepped in as promotor of popular capitalism. As a 36 year old Battersea resident, he is familiar with the gruelling routines of these neglected Conservatives, and has been lying in wait for them at the commuter stations from 7am most mornings of the campaign. When he finds them, he wisely does not attempt to engage them in lengthy political discussions, but instead hands out informative letters explaining his anti-Brexit policies and his background.
And oh what a background. Before he joined the Foreign Office to “fight ISIS”, his career involved “training entrepreneurs in Africa”. Whatever this entails, it couldn’t be more different from the solid, and slightly depressing, worthiness preached by the vicar’s daughter. And it goes down much better with young professionals who tend to see wealth creation as the best route out of poverty.
With seven days left of campaigning to go, Mrs May needs to wake up and smell the expensive, artisan coffee. Young people are not all socialists, and if she doesn’t provide for those who aren’t – someone else will. Erdington Toryism may be all very well in Erdington, but in the south, she has to tap in to Battersea Toryism.