Ben Bradley is MP for Mansfield.
There’s been a lot of discussion in recent weeks and months about the ‘youth’ problem for the Conservative Party, and it all seems to revolve around students and tuition fees, but let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute. Our real problem isn’t with students and we didn’t ‘lose’ the student vote: we never had it in the first place.
A more pressing electoral issue is how do we win over my generation. I’m a 27 year old dad of two, who aspires to be able to give my kids a good life, and build a rewarding career. I’m lucky enough to have been able to get on the housing ladder recently, but it’s much harder than it was for our parents. I’d like to be able to enjoy my job, not have to worry too much about money, and spend quality time with my kids; a trio that rarely seem fit together. These aren’t complicated dreams, but they’re popular ones. Last June, people with those aspirations turned away from the Conservatives.
In fact, every age group under the age of 47 ditched the Tories then, and whilst a few seats such as mine in Mansfield were won for the first time, more often than not across the rest of the country that trend cost us dear. Whilst everyone seems to consider that ‘old’ people vote Conservative and ‘young’ people vote Labour, to my mind actually it’s the 25-45 age bracket that should really be our Conservative heartland. We are the party of aspiration, the party of home ownership, the party of jobs. We introduced more free childcare, raised the income tax threshold, and introduced Help to Buy, which has supported thousands on to the property ladder. That’s the British Dream right there.
The big problem then is “not the jokes – it’s how we tell them”. Across every policy area for as long as I can remember, we’ve let Labour set the agenda. Too often, we’re on the defensive when it comes to the issues that really matter to people. I always use health as the example. We have a strong record on the NHS, putting in more money than ever before, and finally grasping the nettle to look at reforming the system to meet modern levels of demand. It’s not easy, but we’re doing it. We’re pushing hard to improve mental health provision, with both funding and major changes to the way we approach those services. The NHS has been branded the best health service in the world for consecutive years under this Government. Yet all the while, the NHS is seen as a Labour win. How is that even possible?
It’s simple really: it’s poor messaging. Too often, we don’t want to be proactive and talk about the NHS, because people will be mean to us about cuts, call us nasty Tories, and probably say we don’t care about people. It hurts our feelings, and makes for bad headlines. So instead, we let Labour have sole occupancy of that discussion and set the agenda, and our only intervention is to step in and defend ourselves. That’s not inspiring. It’s not going to convince people to back us on health reforms. To be honest, it’s not even a criticism of the Department of Health, because actually Jeremy Hunt says this stuff all the time – but all too often the rest of us shy away from the discussion. The same is true in other areas too.
What Jeremy Corbyn had last summer that we didn’t was a positive vision for the future. He talked about all the unicorns and rainbows we could have under his jolly communist regime. Some people believed it; a lot didn’t – but even to some of those that weren’t wholly convinced it still sounded more promising than the Conservatives simply saying ‘we’re not as bad as him’. You don’t win support and inspire people with a negative message.
There’s a place for having a go at Corbyn – how could we not when so much of what he says is so indefensible? – but it has to be combined with our grand plan for a better life. We need to be proactive with our messages to make sure people know our long-term aims, and not just sit back and let Corbyn tell people his version of what Tories believe in. The way to win over aspirational young voters is to convince them of our values, and how they personally will benefit from our policies. It’s not rocket science. I’m a Conservative because I want a government that will help people to help themselves, offering everyone an equal opportunity to succeed through their own talent and hard work. I believe in the vision – and as a party we need to get much better at selling it.