Tom Harrison works as a Parliamentary researcher for a Conservative MP.
Young Brits don’t vote. Or at least, not nearly enough. In the last General Election, fewer than half of 18 to 24 year-olds turned out to vote. But even that was a jump from the all-time low of 37 per cent in 2005. However you look at it, my generation seem to be the most apathetic young people ever.
And politicians aren’t helping things. Young voters are nakedly ignored in favour of going after demographics that have more voting weight. The electoral mathematics of winning “the BME vote”, “the working class vote” or “the Northern vote” are all generally understood and agreed. But winning over young people is dismissed as either impossible or pointless.
This thinking creates a vicious circle where young people are ignored by politicians, and they reciprocally disdain politicians through low turnout, making themselves ever more ignorable. As a result, young people are more disengaged from mainstream politics than ever before. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
There is reason for us Conservatives to be optimistic. Young people are more right-wing than previous cohorts were at the same age. This generation of 18 to 34-year-olds is the most likely to criticise the welfare state, rely on themselves for career success and relish competition. The Conservative message of social mobility seemingly has a generation of advocates.
The ideological battle also changed the intellectual atmosphere that my peers and I have grown up in. Outdated utopian ideals have been replaced by a sceptical post-modernism that intertwines seamlessly with Conservative values.
Many assume that these views will automatically translate into Conservative votes. But the party must present a vision that demonstrates common values while ridding itself of branding issues. Persistent, lazy views that we are the “nasty party” or “party of the rich” must be challenged. The fact that these attitudes are still so common shows that the moral message of Conservatism has not been expressed well enough.
The good intentions behind welfare reform persuaded me to join the Conservative fold. For many of my friends, however, it exemplifies what they have always been told: Conservatives are nasty, wealth-obsessed, anti-poor capitalists. If the party doesn’t frame the argument, then it cedes ground to the opposition to mislead and exacerbate our brand problem. The channels of communication must be opened up before we can convince young people that Conservatism is their political home.
Politics in a 21st century news arena
But it is not quite accurate to say that people of my age are turned off politics full stop. It’s just there is a gulf between a speech in Westminster and a Facebook campaign. The venue of political discussion has changed. My age group were born in the age of consumer choice and, of course, the Internet. News is now churned out from a huge range of sources. Breaking news, once the reserve of the BBC and ITV is now readily provided by BuzzFeed, blogs or even satirical comedy shows. Something tells me that we’re a generation who have really embraced the free market.
Westminster politics just doesn’t get a look-in. MPs need to go outside of the usual methods to reach new voters. The tired routine of Conference, Westminster and the national press cannot last forever. As news coverage is diversified and digitised, all politicians risk falling out of the headlines unless they adapt to a different audience. If politicians fail to pre-empt this trend, then it will be forced upon them by the inexorable shift towards online, entertainment-heavy news.
Transforming the language of political debate
The Conservative Party must be accessible and exciting to young voters. While economic competence is important, the “long-term economic plan” will not bring young voters to polling stations in droves. We need to scrap the hymn sheet and explain policies by speaking into the lives of young people. Boris said that the 2012 Olympics were an embodiment of the competitive, meritocratic values of Conservatism. This is the type of message that chimes with young voters. But we hardly ever hear it.
My generation are particularly cynical when it comes to politics. They see through the question-dodging and vacuous slogans that emanate from some politicians. Conservative MPs should have the freedom to express original, radical views that will break through the static. A flood of repetitive slogans is likely to reinforce scepticism and lose swathes of potential voters. Using the tired political language of the past 30 years is a massive turn-off.
Young people care about the economy and unemployment just as much as anyone else. But they are more antipathetic to the anodyne arguments that surround them. The value of the free market could be explained by reference to the Premier League attracting the best footballers in the world. And the importance of free speech by the plethora of original comedy, books, films and TV this country produces. Political arguments have to enter unfamiliar linguistic territory to attract new demographics.
A long-term strategy
This doesn’t mean huge changes in policy. Obviously, addressing issues such as internet privacy are likely to help in the fight. But making the Conservative Party the natural home of young people is as much about making the party an acceptable choice as it is about policy discussions. If politicians focus too much on issues specific to young people, then they risk falling into the trap of appearing duplicitous. A better tactic would be to explain the importance of Conservative values such as free speech, fiscal responsibility and low taxation in relatable terms.
A lackadaisical attitude towards young voters might be backed by accepted psephology, but it is lousy politics. We might not swing the 2015 election, but could well sway the 2025 or 2035 election. If the Conservatives build up a support base of younger voters now, the task will be immeasurably easier in years to come. If Conservatives continue on the well-trodden path of ignoring new voters, then they risk losing the most receptive cohort of young people ever. This would be a disaster for the party and the country in years to come.