Edward Nyman is a Trainee Solicitor at US-based law firm Hausfeld & Co LLP. He writes in a personal capacity.
“Two per cent of the older part of the electorate die every year – they are 70 per cent Conservative. Another two per cent come in at the young end of the electorate – they are about 70 per cent Labour… There isn’t much time.” Michael Heseltine
Whereas in previous generations it was taken for granted that people were likely to become more conservative as they grew older, there are no such assurances in modern politics. At the last election, the Labour Party’s popularity increased among all ages, save for those over the age of 70. Crucially, its share of the youth vote increased at the expense of the Conservative Party, which lost support from both its traditional voter base and millennials (which supposedly doubled between 2003 and the successful election of 2015).
The age problem at the Party’s core is complex and, if left unresolved, could result in its downfall. In order to reverse the Party’s current trajectory, I propose the following five-point plan to engage young British voters and cement its future success.
The last election brought neither a message for young people in which to believe nor an incentive for them to vote Conservative, and it is clear that a majority now perceive Labour to be in the driving seat, charting the political course for the future. If we want to take back the wheel, we must make a concerted effort to ask ourselves who we are, what we stand for and at whom our policies are aimed.
For young people to vote Conservative, the Party must target issues which young people are passionate about and offer them a vision of Britain in which they would like to live. Polling by YouGov shows that the issues most important to voters under the age of 40 are as follows:
Interestingly, more than twice as many 18 to 28-year olds chose climate change over the economy (14 per cent), immigration (14 per cent) and Brexit (13 per cent) as a policy issue they would like to see more senior politicians discuss. This could help to explain why the Government has put so much of its limited political capital into backing reforms championed by Michael Gove.
At its highest level in voter importance for 40 years, another fundamental policy area which needs a revamp is housing. Eighteen to 36-year olds are spending three times more of their income on housing than their grandparents did, yet Conservative-led councils in the South East of England continue to favour the preservation of brownfield sites in the greenbelt over a long overdue house-building programme. How can the Conservatives offer young people a prosperous future if housing inequality prevents them from having a stake in it?
The Party must also consider the differences in aspirations and interests of future voters. So-called “Generation Z”, which makes up about a quarter of the UK population, is said to be even more entrepreneurial than millennials and, with an increased awareness of digital technology and the rise of automation, are likely to be more concerned with employment prospects than previous generations. Generation Z is also said to be more interested in making a positive impact on the world.
I do not suggest we close our ears to the interests of the older voters, nor do I suggest we cherry-pick issues in which we think young voters are interested (such as Labour’s frivolous bid to abolish tuition fees). Rather, Conservative policies should fit together to form a cohesive plan for the future of Britain. To do so, older voters must understand that, for the sake of its continued existence, the Party must re-evaluate its priorities, work hard to become relevant and offer more beyond delivering Brexit.
Roughly 18 per cent of 18 to 25-year olds voted for the Conservative Party in the last election; the average age of a Conservative Party member is 57. The Party is in desperate need to learn how to communicate with a Britain diverse in age, ethnicity and social background. This calls for diversification across the board.
Against the backdrop of the election of the most diverse Parliament yet, the Conservative Party is still widely perceived as the party of the white, middle-class male. Whilst, on paper, this perception flies in the face of the Conservative values of individual liberty and meritocracy, it is clear that the Party has an image problem which must be addressed in order to encourage young people of all backgrounds to engage in politics. A diverse party with a clear, consistent message which appeals to young people would be better placed to convey its values to young campaigners and voters, dispelling the stale, stuffy stereotypes and helping to rebrand the Conservatives as the party of the people.
There is more to modern campaigning than canvassing and the Party would also do well to diversify its platform to reach a wider audience. Social media is undoubtedly key in terms of capturing the attention of young people, yet only 43 per cent of Conservative MPs mention their party affiliation on Twitter versus 90 per cent of Labour MPs. If elected representatives are afraid or embarrassed to stand proud and declare their allegiances, then it is no wonder those outside the Party feel the same way. Correcting this should not be a controversial first step to counter the dearth of Conservative support online.
The real challenge, however, will be to extend support for the Party beyond itself to attract young voters. During the last election, Labour’s Momentum eclipsed the Conservatives’ online presence, replacing meaningful debate with distasteful rhetoric. The only way to nurture Conservative sensibility amongst young people is to break away from its traditional methods of campaigning and to engage them in debate about the issues important to them in spaces in which they feel safe from abuse.
3. Authentic leadership
As fundamental as reformed policy and the diversification of people and platform are to the Party’s future success, such progress would be fruitless without effective leadership. The Conservative Party has traditionally sourced strong, effective leaders. It seems, however, that the goalposts for what constitutes “effective” leadership have shifted amongst young people: effective has now essentially given way to “authentic”.
Jeremy Corbyn’s seemingly unrehearsed manner has been a hit with younger voters attracted to the way he is able to talk about issues in a more (com)passionate, genuine way than does Theresa May. It is not her more scripted approach alone which seems to have turned off young voters; it plays into the wider image problem the Party has tried so hard to overcome in recent years, distracting voters from sensible discussion and detracting attention away from tangible results.
It would be detrimental to the Party to ignore the social trends which have become so plain to anyone even remotely abreast of current affairs. This does not mean we should promote those with the largest cult followings amongst millennials to high office. Rather, what the Party needs across the board is young, fresh leaders with new ideas and a renewed sense of positivity about the future of this country.
While intentions were admirable, the most recent Cabinet reshuffle was viewed unfavourably, compensated to some extent by the promotion of a handful of rising stars. If the Party is to win future elections, it must focus on promoting young, talented individuals who are passionate about a Conservative vision for Britain and who are capable of expressing their views in a clear, personal manner.
4. Seize the moment
Along with the majority of young voters, I voted for Britain to remain in the European Union. The fact is, however, Brexit remains on course and we must propagate the opportunities it can offer, as well as addressing the concerns expressed by a large faction of society.
The prevailing zeitgeist amongst young people is that Brexit will be damaging for the current and future young generations. As a Party, we must challenge this. Allowing this negativity to overshadow discussions concerning Britain’s future could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, crippling the country and, in turn, punishing the Party as the architect of the devastation.
The Party is at a crossroads and Brexit presents us with only one alternative to electoral oblivion: to deliver a Brexit which allows Britain to self-govern again, to trade freely with whomever we like, and to chart its own course, free from the shackles of European bureaucracy. But we must seize the moment.
Although many see themselves as self-styled Corbynistas, young voters are less partisan than previous generations; they care more about issues than party politics. That said, young people must be made aware that there is more to Brexit than damage-control and that the possibilities which lie beyond Brexit are closely interrelated with Conservative objectives: employment prospects, globalism, being a responsible leader in free and fair trade across nations and improving the lives of millions of people.
If we are to compete in (and, indeed, win) the battle of ideas, it is paramount that the Conservative post-Brexit vision resonates with young people.
5. Focus on we; not us and them
Corbyn and John McDonnell’s Labour Party has altered the parameters of modern British politics. What was once perceived as the centre-ground under David Cameron has since shifted left, resulting in the appearance of a right-wing and out-of-touch Conservative Party. If the Party is to remain in power, it must regain that centre ground.
In pursuit of power, however, it is important that the Conservatives do not fall into the same trap as at the last election. Negative campaigning is a sign of weakness; smearing your opposition only means you have run out of fresh ideas, and the electorate (especially young voters) has had enough of it. There is no reason to doubt that Theresa May wholeheartedly believed this country would be worse off under a Labour government, but every remark along these lines came at the expense of making the case for why the Conservatives should be in power: an opportunity cost we cannot afford to pay again.
Engaging young voters is no mean feat and the Conservative Party has a long way to go. This five-point plan, however, encompasses reforms fundamental to the Party’s future existence and success: we must find our identity in modern Britain; break away from obstructive stereotypes; source authentic leaders who connect with voters; become the party of opportunity; and we must never style ourselves as an alternative to “chaos”.
By the time the next election comes around, the Party must be ready to present a positive, forward-looking case for conservatism, focusing on what unites us, why our values are relevant and, most importantly, how they relate to young people as the future beneficiaries of a prosperous Britain.
This chapter forms part of a series contained in the New Blue Book: Emerging Leaders Edition. It provides a platform for new ideas and policy proposals from rising stars and emerging leaders across the centre-right.