By Mark Wallace
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As Max Chambers argues in this morning's contribution to our FutureMajority series, the Conservative Party must make a compelling and persuasive pitch to young voters. A large support base among older voters is a great thing to have, and should not be taken for granted, but on its own it is not enough to win a General Election tomorrow – still less to win General Elections in years to come.
So it is interesting and encouraging to see signs of an upturn in Conservative support among the young. An article in the Guardian reports that Ipsos MORI's research into generational voting patterns shows that rates of Conservative support among Generation Y, those born since 1980, have doubled since 2003. According to their numbers, Labour still leads in that age group but the direction of travel is in our favour.
As the Guardian graph below shows, while the Tory vote in all age groups grew with the advent of the financial crisis (and Gordon Brown), it is only among the young that it has continued to rise. Indeed, Toryism among Generation Y now outstrips that among baby boomers (born 1945-65) and Generation X (born 1966-1979).
This does not seem to be a blip or an outlier. Several YouGov polls in recent weeks have shown Conservative support among the 18-24 age range topping 30%, and one even shows the Conservatives as the most popular party outright among those young voters.
This is good news – the question is what it really means and how the party can act upon the information.
Why are young voters backing the Conservatives?
The British Social Attitudes survey shows that, in the words of Ipsos MORI's Ben Page, "each generation is less collectivist than the last". Young voters are less socially conservative and far more economically liberal – perhaps due to spending their youth under a high-spending big state or perhaps down to the atomising effect of digital technology. In short, the young are becoming more libertarian.
Of course, this may wear off with time – the old adage that a conservative is a liberal with daughters may take effect. But it is hard to see today's young people, who have been forced by circumstance to be more entrepreneurial and to expect fewer handouts than the babyboomers enjoyed, joining their parents in the expectation that the state can or should provide taxpayer-funded freebies rather than encouraging people to stand on their own two feet.
How to react?
This a clear opportunity for the Conservative Party, but it is complicated by two challenges:
- Young people don't vote: or rather, they do, but in far lower numbers than current pensioners. If the demographic is increasingly sympathetic to voting blue, then it is all the more important that the party machine, its grassroots and its strategists work out how to turn that sympathy into votes on polling day.
- Winning young and old at the same time: The priorities, principles and interests of this new potential well of support may be in conflict with those of our existing support base. The young are not bothered about what consenting adults get up to with each other – nor do they see a reason for gay people not to have marriage equality. Similarly, as an increasingly indebted, debt hawk population at the start of their taxpaying careers they may well be more sceptical of ring-fenced universal benefits – including those for pensioners. It will take a careful tightrope walker to keep both groups on-side and combine them into an overall majority.
Nonetheless, this is an exciting development. Conservatives have become too used to the idea that our vote is old and nothing else – the potential for a return to the days when the party had an inspiring offer for young people who want to get ahead must not be missed.