When I was 16 and ineffectually precocious, I interviewed Ann Widdecombe for my school newspaper. I asked her what had drawn her to conservative politics and she was characteristically clear: “I wanted to fight socialism, passionately. Your generation don’t realise it now, but socialism was a real and present danger when I was young.”
Even as a teenager, I understood immediately what she meant. I had grown up on stories of Eastern European relatives trapped behind the Iron Curtain: homes, jobs, rights of conscience dispensed only by corrupt bureaucratic fiat. But for most of my millennial peers, the admonition from a helmet-haired Tory to vanquish socialism was met with full-on derision. The Cold War was yesterday’s struggle; “socialism” something vague and nostalgic about the Labour Party which Tony Blair didn’t like (and therefore teenagers did.) It was romantic, abstract and utterly removed from anyone’s political concerns in 2002.
Fifteen years on, the Tories are still doing a bad job of explaining to millennials why socialism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But the stakes are higher. As Widdecombe pointed out, direct state control wasn’t “a clear and present danger” to the British economy at the turn of the millennium. It is now. To call Jeremy Corbyn a socialist isn’t a reactionary smear: it’s a direct quotation of the self-described principles of the leader of the Labour Party. And he’s doing well, especially amongst young people.
Dangerously well. In an August survey for YouGov, 56 per cent of voters under 24 stated that Corbyn would make a better prime minister than Theresa May (compared to 17 per cent for May, with 26 per cent “Don’t Knows”.) In overall voting intention, Labour lead the Conservatives by a 1 per cent gap, and in every age group except for the over-65s.
But the Conservatives won’t be able to rely on even that 65+ age group in the future. In the past, each generation has become more likely to vote Conservative as they get older. CCHQ polling shows that for the next generation of pensioners, that is no longer the case. Old age no longer functions as a mystic car-wash that descends on voters in their sixties and dissolves to reveal a production line of new Conservative voters.
Why aren’t we turning Tory as we age? One answer is that British voters are having to wait longer in their lives to accumulate significant personal capital – because it’s all but impossible to get onto the housing ladder. Socialism is less threatening when it’s not your wealth being redistributed. Or as I’ve written before, you can’t be a capitalist if you don’t have any capital.
Another part of the answer is that a generation of Britons is reaching late adulthood without a concrete memory of what socialism really looked like in Eastern Europe. The suppression of the resistance in the Prague Spring is now 49 years ago, the massacre of Hungarian anti-Soviet protesters a full 61 years back.
It’s not like Tory candidates didn’t mention the S-word during this year’s disastrous snap election campaign. On the contrary, I sat through hustings after hustings of Tory candidates railing against Jeremy Corbyn’s friendships with various unpleasant groups in the 80s, “committees” and “syndicates” with slogans drawn from Eastern European philosophers of whom British voters haven’t heard and about whom they don’t care. Mention that Jeremy Corbyn has defended the economic policies of Pavil Postyshev, and they won’t remember mass starvation in Soviet Russia – they’ll ask why there are food banks in Britain here and now.
Political party broadcasts about the failures of Soviet central planning have the uncomfortable feel of too many History Channel documentaries about the Holocaust: absolutely necessary, morally right and yet through the alchemy of over familiarity and distance rendered toothless. The more often we are told Never Again, the more tempted we become to forget.
To combat a full-throttle, retro-rinse Cold War socialist in 2017, it’s not enough for the Tories to replay slogans that won the Cold War in the 1980s. Jeremy Corbyn has been attacked left right and centre as a personality, but the penny-by-penny pound impact of his policies on contemporary economy has evaded it scrutiny. It doesn’t help that his policies shift on the sands – direct economic promises from the Labour Party remain a moving target. But the Tories will need to rise to that challenge. Nor is it enough to warn that Socialism leads to economic disaster. In a time of continued economic distress, Conservatives will have to prove all over again that capitalism offers something better.
This article was originally published in Bright Blue’s magazine, ‘Conservatism Refresh’