On my Christmas trip back to my home town of Nottingham, I found my remaining school friends firmly established with young families, mortgages and careers in bloom. We’re also hardly young any more: My group are the oldest millennials and are entering middle age. And yet despite having accumulated all these symbolic markers of adulthood, none of us are voting Conservative. Why?
For me, there is a simple biographical explanation. I was born in 1982 – my earliest political memories are of the dog days of the Major government. I grew up during a prolonged period of general improvement under New Labour, before the Tories got back in 2010 – leading to today and a situation reminiscent of the mid-90s malaise, with the Conservatives both fighting themselves and seemingly uncomfortable with wider cultural developments. It’s not fair to say the Tories run the country into a ditch every time they’re in office; what I can say is that my generation’s experience is two for two so far.
The truth is the Tories have failed to attain the confidence of we geriatric millennials because they haven’t run the country very well. Their chief mistake has been to put their own internal disputes ahead of the national interest. Had they behaved differently, questions about intergenerational fairness would not arise, as to govern in the national interest is to necessarily to govern for everybody, whether a comfortable pensioner in the Home Counties or a struggling renter in southeast London.
Sometimes it’s suggested that Brexit has alienated younger voters. In my experience, while there is little love for Brexit amongst the young, it is far from the key factor. Nonetheless, it has had one clear impact that my generation sees particularly clearly. Old millennials who grew up only knowing Britain with the EU saw freedom of movement rights as a given, and we made use of it. At my pretty standard Nottingham sixth-form college, multiple peers went to work abroad and some ended up in marrying EU citizens. The Tories seem to have assumed that people wouldn’t notice losing this freedom – in fact, I suspect older millennials will seek to restore these rights for their children and for their retirement. Longer term, the Tories will have to grasp that for these voters it was the EU, rather than Brexit, which was the status quo.
In the short term, though, what should the Tories do? One idea being counselled, as in this piece, is to go all in on anti-wokeness – with the Tories set up to harvest the benefits as younger cohorts end up rebelling against the hegemony of social justice politics. Personally, I think that’s a dead end, as in my experience a lot of younger people are already sceptical of ‘wokeness’ and still aren’t voting Tory. I work in the arts and academia, so see more of the ‘woke’ phenomenon than most, and even in these sectors those who are uncritically signed up for social justice politics are a minority – and less dominant than they were. Wokeness is last year’s culture war, and fighting it runs the risk of the Tories ceding the field to opponents who articulate broader concerns.
Tories may say that’s irrelevant when extreme cultural politics has captured elites. But is it really up to the Conservative Party to stop people being silly in arts and academia? That’s a job for wider civil society, and one where liberals and conservatives have a common interest.
The Tory Party has always been good at knowing which battles it should abandon, backing down on devolution and LGBT+ rights. It is now time for them to compromise again. For sure this will likely require a cold drenching bucket of opposition first. But it will then be time for the Tories to work out where to compromise with a changing electorate.
I can’t speak for my whole generation, but here are five things I suspect older millennials value:
1. The NHS being there and free
2. Environmental protections
3. Inclusivity in a broad sense
4. Affordable rents
5. Better public transport outside London
Now, does a single thing there seem incompatible with the basic tenets of conservatism – with respect for family, tradition and flag? Younger people still want to be proud of their country and to raise their families in it – they just want to do it in a diverse, chill, Gareth Southgatey sort of way. If opposing that is a priority for the Tories they will indeed be disappointed; however, rather than defending 20th century values at all costs, they might remember it has never been the Tory mission to prevent change but to manage it. Dare I say it but, to win back older millennials and their successors, the Conservatives might need to be more conservative in their ambitions.
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