Chloe Smith is the Member of Parliament for Norwich North.
This is the last article of four about Generation Y in democracy.
The first article explained that the majority of today’s 18-24 year olds are not voting. Only 44 per cent turned out in 2010 and, since then, at worst, 88 per cent expressed that they don’t plan to vote. There is evidence to suggest this situation is more extreme than it has been for previous generations of young citizens, and that Britain’s problem is worse than elsewhere in Europe and the US.
The second article showed how 2015’s first time voters have “a considerable aversion to formal, professional politics”  – but they are interested in political affairs and are doing different activities including some outstanding community projects. They want confidence in what politics is for. Meanwhile, politicians need to gain young voters’ trust, communicate effectively and set out the right policies.
My third article examined policy and argued for a focus on the economy, education and the major intergenerational issues such as housing as well as modernising voting itself.
So what should the Conservative Party do?
We have an exciting Conservative chance to communicate with a whole new market.
We know that this group look to themselves to take action, and look to businesses, charities and action groups to achieve things for their chosen community. Actions that the state can take come a long way down the list, according to research by Demos. Even The Guardian has been forced to admit that “Generation Y is backing the Conservatives” .
The polls show an opportunity. The latest Ipsos Mori polling, Generation Strain, shows that support in Generation Y for the Conservatives has doubled since 2005. Although our party still lags Labour in this age group, Labour support has plateaued and Lib Dem support crashed.
Ipsos Mori’s data also shows a decline in support across the board for redistribution and high welfare spending, but with the youngest generation in particular least in favour. Generation Y has strong interest in enterprise. Some argue, too, that whilst you might expect a clash of generations at a time of scarce resources, the lack of such strife reflects strong family values. All three of these points about policy and values imply an important opportunity for the centre-right.
Will UKIP take that opportunity instead of the Conservatives? Although The Spectator and The Evening Standard have been at pains to explain how “normal” the party’s 2,000-strong youth wing is, Lord Ashcroft’s Euro polling shows that people aged 18-34 are moving away in the greatest number from UKIP than from any other party. The founder of the UKIP youth wing describes motivation that simply echoes the rest of Generation Y’s cries: “I felt national politics was a bit stale. Everyone was arguing over minor details and there are no big ideas anymore. The radical idealism of younger people draws them towards UKIP,” he says.
The Conservative Party has been, is, can be and should be a party of radical ideas and action.
Our opportunity is to avert an existentially large-scale disillusionment with traditional party politics by making our party the home for Generation Y.
We need to act now because while the Baby Boomers are today’s largest cohort, by General Election 2025 Generation Y (and younger) stands to be a competitive proportion of the voting population. As one William Hague once said: “It’s alright for some of you, you won’t be here in thirty or forty years’ time!”
We should focus on three tools to make this change. First in our policy – the manifesto should contain policies that serve Generation Y. Second in our language – so that we talk to all generations. And third in our campaigning.
Dealing with policy first, we should of course be proud of what we have already achieved in government:
- Announced a jobs tax cut in April 2015 for employing under-21s
- Set out the most ambitious possible standards in education and put universities on a freer, more stable financial basis
- Reformed welfare, which 70% of Generation Y could approve of
- Delivered a successful, large-scale programme for young people through the National Citizenship Service
- And put our economy on a stable path towards tackling the debt for future generations.
We can do more. Our 2015 manifesto should include policies which take youth employment ever further; which build more homes; which make it easier to get around in our country when transport outside of metropolitan areas is so often a limiting factor on literal and social mobility; which maintain a limited and fair welfare system; which continue Michael Gove’s ambitions for education (and also childcare under his responsibility where Elizabeth Truss deserves praise for setting out to suit parents in the 21st century); which make public services suit the individual and not the other way around; which maintain the NCS and recognise what makes young people tick in their extensive voluntary and civic contribution.
We should continue to tackle the deficit, of course. It goes without saying on ConservativeHome that to spend without means is to leave debts to future generations.
My second point is that we have an opportunity in the language we choose to use. We can speak to the parents of that generation, and indeed the grandparents too. We can and must also speak to the generation itself.
My third point is that we have a world of opportunity in which to campaign. Rebecca Harris has done good work as party vice chairman for youth, along with Conservative Future. We can build on their achievements.
The best associations and campaign teams are already multi-generational. My own chairman and his predecessor are both younger than me, while we canvass with a superb team including pensioners. Labour’s boast after the local council results was of having the most activists; certainly, the traditional parties don’t get the same easy return in the polls from mere billboards and one charismatic man as UKIP has done, and so the street is the place to be for us in the next ten months. Both online and offline are important and technology has an obvious and crucial role to play.
In the long term we will continue to be the home for radical ideas through practical action by keeping our campaigning goal-oriented, achievable, fun and indeed good for a Gen Y CV. My own friends in Norwich and the young people that join Richard Harrington’s team in Watford certainly value campaigning because it brings skills and contacts. Our party’s record of social action allows us to be focused on the community and to accommodate any combination of issues too. Generation Y demands less hierarchy, less open-ended commitment, less party line than any traditional party has been used to.
Our competitors won’t stand still, and parties in other countries can teach a thing or two too. Would any self-respecting business choose not to adapt to a new market?
Generation Y, like any other group, backs its own values and aspirations. I want politics in Britain to work for Generation Y alongside other generations. Politics has to help new-style campaigners get results in their communities; has to help online activists articulate a vision for how things should be – and make it happen; has to help practical, relevant, goal-oriented and flexible young people run the country in good time.
I believe passionately that the Conservative Party can be the home for Generation Y because we hold the principles of the small state, responsible economics, freedom, enterprise and social liberalism. Those principles matter for this generation as they have always mattered – and you can have them through your vote, your action and your leadership.