The subject dominating so much of Conservative Conference is how the party can appeal to the new generation of politically active voters – the ones who helped strip the Government of its majority in June. From conversations in corridors to the standing-room-only fringe event on engaging young people, the realisation that the average age of party members is now 72 hangs in the air.
It’s a concern shared by No 10 – as Theresa May illustrated by throwing £10 billion at the Government’s Help To Buy scheme and freezing university tuition fees. Meanwhile, the inaugural Big Tent Ideas Festival, George Freeman’s so called ‘Tory Glastonbury’, is another sign the party have realised they have a youth problem and are trying to connect with a younger generation.
In a recent poll, Bright Blue asked young voters what energises them. It revealed that among 18-28 year olds the thing they most want politicians to be discussing more is climate change. When this age group is extended to under 40s, climate change comes second only to health.
The top three policies that would make these under 40s proud of a political party are all environmental: generating more renewable electricity (83 per cent); banning the sale of ivory products (77 per cent); and providing incentives for people to install home insulation (71 per cent).
At a packed-out Spectator fringe event on Conservatism and the Environment, Coca-Cola Director Joel Morris said his company was clear which way the wind was blowing and had adapted accordingly to prepare for this generational shift in attitudes.
“We don’t have voters but we do have consumers,” he said. “All the consumer insight we have in the UK tells us that our customers care about this. For teens and young adults, it’s a very important issue and they have growing expectations of large brands to act responsibly. For people in their thirties, who maybe have children, they are beginning to think about what kind of world they are leaving behind for the next generation.”
But there’s a problem. In Bright Blue’s polling, the top three adjectives that under 40s chose to describe the Conservative’s climate change policies were “weak”, “inadequate” and “damaging”. The Conservatives used to be called the nasty party but now they appear to be the dirty party – at least in the minds of young people.
Unless they address this, the door of opportunity, and possibly of No 10, will be opened to Jeremy Corbyn. Not all Tories are oblivious, the recent announcements by Michael Gove on electric vehicles and animal cruelty suggest the Environment Secretary has started to recognise the scale of the problem.
In fact, the Conservative story on the environment doesn’t need to be one opposed to market economics. On the contrary, it is arguably the white heat of competition that has forced offshore energy firms to innovate and make efficiencies which resulted in the prices announced last month which made offshore wind cheaper than gas power. The Government has estimated that the capacity delivered through this auction saved £528 million per year compared with a process without competition.
This offshore windfall has also brought jobs to some of the most deprived parts of the UK in need of investment. Siemens’ turbine blade factory in Hull employs a thousand people, of which 97 per cent live within 30 miles of the site.
Part of the reason Dong Energy could offer such affordable prices for its Hornsea Two project was because it will share a hub in Grimsby that operates Hornsea One. “We’re seeing a regeneration of coastal towns along the North East,” said Matthew Wright, head of Dong’s operations in the UK.
Post-Brexit Britain has the opportunity to retain many of these manufacturing jobs needed for UK-based turbines, while also exporting offshore technical, logistical and planning expertise as other countries decarbonise.
Add to this the fact that household energy bills have gone down since 2008, while the proportion of renewables in the nation’s energy mix has gone up. And the fact that the UK’s carbon emissions have fallen by 28 per cent.
But not only is there relative silence from the Prime Minister on this, the Government seems to actively want to hide its own positive achievements. It chose to bury its announcement that it would phase out coal by 2025, by announcing it on the day of Donald Trump’s election victory. It’s no wonder young people describe Conservative climate policy as weak, inadequate and damaging – they’ve barely had a chance to hear it.
And unlike some issues which may trade off older votes for younger ones, the fact that even 81 per cent of Tory Leave voters support keeping EU renewable energy targets post Brexit, suggests there is support for these polices across the board.
Reclaiming Conservative leadership on the environment would start to prise away some of Jeremy Corbyn’s advantage with the under 40s, while also reclaiming some fundamental Conservative principles. As Sir Roger Scruton said in Manchester, “It’s about love of one’s country, of the place that is inherited and that we want to pass on. This is core to the conservative mission.”