A first-time voter last week will have been born in 1999. He or she will have no memory of John Major’s Government, which ended two years earlier, let alone of the Thatcher years that preceded it. The collapse of communism took place a decade previously.
A 34 year old voter last week will have been born in 1983. He has been voting since 2001, and may have voted Conservative then or subsequently. But he was a child when the Berlin Wall fell, and not even born during the Winter of Discontent.
In other words, these events, which marked part of life’s journey as adults for many of us, have not shaped the thinking of the youngest trance of voters, and weigh less on those in their late 20s and early 30s. The Tory campaign attacked Jeremy Corbyn relentlessly over his record on the IRA and Trident. But the former declared its first ceasefire in 1994, five years before that first-time voter was born. And the main security threat to Britain at present is internal.
The long and short of it is that as time passes a decreasing slice of the electorate has any experience at all of the threat of totalitarianism (or of old-fashioned socialism of the Corbyn kind): today’s younger voters have to look far away to North Korea; their predecessors had the Soviet Union squatting on their doorstep. The argument that socialism doesn’t work cuts little ice.
Instead, they live within a capitalist system which is delivering increasing prosperity outside the western world, but which was spluttering in Western Europe and America before the great crash. Their University-educated predecessors had grants; they pay tuition fees. That older generation expected final salary pensions; these are vanishing. Above all, the younger one does not have the same access to home ownership.
For quite a while now, Conservative leaders have not prioritised making the conservative case to voters. The Cameron leadership was preoccupied with image over message, especially during its opposition years. Theresa May has had her hands full with Brexit. One has to go back to the Thatcher era to find a leader with a real zest for ideas.
That was 30 years or so ago. Much has changed. The Party is no less an internal coalition than ever, as Leavers jostle with Remains, free marketeers with interventionists, social conservatives with social liberals – and libertarians.
None the less, there is a shared core of beliefs and values – in the rule of law, liberal democracy, the Union (in most cases), a smaller state, the market economy, a strong civil society – what Cameron called the Big Society.
So given the scale of the Labour vote among the 18-24 and 25-34 cohorts – we don’t have the British Electoral Survey findings yet, but the trend is very plain – Downing Street and CCHQ need to think very seriously, as Conservative leaders have not thought for a generation, about how to make the case for conservatism to younger voters.
- The members’ area of the Party website advertises no youth wing. Conservative Future was suspended. CCHQ has no proper youth department.
- There is no forum of Conservative academics to help lead a new drive (though work is taking place on one).
- Young Britons Foundation ran its “Tory madrassah”. There has been no attempt to run a wider-ranging (and less controversial) equivalent with the full backing of the Party.
This structural weakness needs to be addressed, and quickly.