4 October 2019

How can the Conservatives win over young voters?


Those who take a reasonable interest in political developments will probably have seen that the Conservatives are currently ahead in the opinion polls. It is not that the Conservative share is high, but that Labour is doing much worse. Indeed in some recent polls, Labour has been in third place behind the Lib Dems.

Yet those of us who are serious nerds, and are prepared to look up the data tables for these polls, can see that there is one group where the Conservatives are well behind. It’s not women – the YouGov poll earlier this week has women backing the Conservatives by 33% to 24% for Labour. It’s not the poor – Conservative support from socio economic groups C2DE is 34% – exactly the same as it is for socio economic groups ABC1. Labour’s scores are respectively 22% and 21%.

The problem is with the young people. Among 18-24 year-olds, the Conservatives are on 12%. The Green Party is on 13%. The Lib Dems on 28%. Labour on 37%. There is a caveat that opinion pollsters disapprove of what I have done, diving into the demographic detail. This is because for each subset the sample sizes are rather small and might be unrepresentative. Fine. But when we get much the same margins in all the polling then we get the message.

So what should the Conservatives do about it? One response would be that it doesn’t matter. The Conservatives have a clear poll lead overall, so young people can get stuffed. I think that would be a mistake.

At the Conservative Conference in Manchester this week everyone has been anxious to piously identify themselves as a “one nation Conservative”. Often it sounded vacuous and apologetic. But if the phrase means anything at all, then surely it must include seeking to advance the interests of every section of the country.

One long term issue is the way the left are able to get away with hijacking the education system for indoctrination. It is quite routine for school teachers as well as college lecturers to push a socialist ideology. The curriculum allows, even encourages this. It is not a question of it being done by stealth. It is all openly proclaimed. The academic establishment is in their hands.

Prudent advice for those students or professors who hold Conservative sympathies is to be discreet. What if they happen to believe that free enterprise is the best way to defeat poverty? Or that Brexit could be an advance for democracy? Best not to mention it.

That pernicious distortion of education is dependent on finance from the taxpayer and official approval. Therefore it can be addressed. But not in time for the General Election which is expected to take place next month.

The good news for the Conservatives is that Boris Johnson is a leader particularly well suited to appeal to the young. He’s optimistic, risk taking, good humoured, open-minded and charismatic – these are qualities that will give chances of getting a hearing.

There is an indication that some are already responding, with the announcement that Conservative Party membership has risen to 189,000 – an increase of 50% over the last 18 months. Many new recruits are young. Also, of the 5,000 party members attending this week’s Party Conference, over a thousand were under 25.

So what should the message be? Me-tooism will not inspire. The Conservatives need to win the battle of ideas. This is especially true among the young. Older voters may become more taken up with practical concerns; which ends up being electorally advantageous to the Tories. The young are more idealistic and perhaps more internationalist in outlook.

This should not mean that wooing them is insurmountable. An argument in favour of individual freedom versus state regimentation can still resonate when it is put forward. Just look at events in Hong Kong, where young people are at the forefront of a movement against a brutal totalitarian regime.

The environment is a particular concern of the young – and it’s an area the Conservatives have seized on, not least thanks to Michael Gove’s indefatigable work in his time as Environment Secretary. New technology and innovation offer exciting opportunities to improve our environment, and Boris is right to champion this optimistic alternative.

The party must also do more to highlight successes that have benefited younger voters. The reduction in youth unemployment is perhaps the most obvious of these.

Another area where Conservatives need to be forthright in making the case is for freedom of expression  I would suggest that a “free speech tour” of universities be undertaken by prominent Conservative politicians without delay. Boris Johnson can’t be everywhere, but he should get stuck in.

Others should pitch in too. Liz Truss has a good pitch about “Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating, Uber-riding freedom fighters”. After all, entrepreneurial zeal is alive and well among our young people.

There is also Jacob Rees-Mogg. He is the most aggressively old-fashioned of politicians, but he certainly has his fans among younger voters. Perhaps there is some irony. Something counter-cultural going on, but few are able to present the Conservative case with greater clarity.

There is obviously an issue about hardcore leftwing activists disrupting Conservatives on campus, but that shows just how necessary it is to champion freedom of expression in the first place.

It’s not all about mood music and positioning though. There must also be some solid policies. Some “retail offers”. That does not mean competing with Labour to offer greater subsidies to an interest group. That is a game that Conservatives will always lose. It is more about applying Conservative policies and highlighting ways that they would be of particular benefit to the young. Tax cuts for the low paid will particularly benefit those starting out with their first job, for instance.

Central to this must be a determined programme to widen home ownership, increasing the housing supply to reduce prices. That would mean lifting most planning restrictions, including on some of the green belt. That way for this to be politically acceptable would be with the proviso that building must be beautiful not brutalist. A bold programme of selling surplus public sector land for development is also crucial. That would also mean more choice and lower cost for those renting.

What it all amounts to is that the Conservatives should not give up on the young. It is not that the war has been lost so much as that the Conservatives have yet to put up a fight. If they do so they might be in for a pleasant surprise.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist