Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
Once upon a time the Conservative Party could rely on a strong vote from young professionals. At the last election, that section of the electorate deserted us in droves – especially in London.
In the 1980s, it was Mrs Thatcher’s ability to pull votes from the so-called yuppies and blue collar conservatives in equal measure that helped deliver her three General Election victories.
These days the successors to the yuppies – the tech-savvy entrepreneurs, the app developers, the internet traders, the hipsters and the disrupters – care more about single issues than party politics in general and more about fairness than public finance. The Conservative message as it stands seems to bounce off them. Worse than that, a substantial number view us with plain distaste. Eighties Docklands loved us in a way one fears today’s Shoreditch never will.
This is why I am inviting young people to share their thoughts with me and why I am inviting them (and anyone involved in encouraging their participation) to join me for an event in London next month. Let’s call it a Youth Reboot.
We’ll share the best ideas for engagement and then I hope to produce a report which will help the whole party. It will take place on 10th March in central London. If you wish to attend, you can register at syedkamall.co.uk/youthsurvey
The bald figures tell a dispiriting story for those of us who believe that a vibrant, reinvigorated brand of caring Conservatism should appeal to younger voters.
In the General eElection, among first time voters aged 18-19 nationally, YouGov found that only 19 per cent voted Conservative, compared with 66 per cent for Labour. For 20-24s, the split was 22 per cent to 62 per cent, and for 25-29s it was 23 per cent to 63 per cent. This represented a complete collapse for the Conservatives from 2015, when 32 per cent of those aged 18-29 still voted Conservative. The Party suffered a double whammy as turnout among this age group shot up, with around 58 per cent of of voters aged 18-24 turning out to vote in 2017, compared to 43 per cent in 2015.
Labour’s huge lead among young voters stretched up to the age of 30, so there is more to this than Labour’s false bribe of scrapping tuition fees. We have a real problem if we cannot reach out to these younger voters with an attractive proposition, especially in London.
Young voters saw Labour as recognising their concerns and caring about others. It chimed with them. Labour also communicated better with these voters via social media.
After the 2015 General Election, I had lunch with a Labour MEP, and we looked back at the results. He was optimistic that Labour would continue to attract more young professionals, since their polling showed them with a lead over “private renters”. Young working people of all backgrounds are finding it increasingly difficult to own their own home, especially in London.
In some ways, the concerns of young professionals are not that much different from the rest of their age group. They seek a secure job, an affordable roof over their head and reassurance over their debts (often student debts). Some feel that older voters who could afford to buy their own homes and may have received student grants and had their fees paid over the last few decades are now pulling up the drawbridge to home ownership and university education.
Even though the evidence shows that more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are attending university, they seem to believe Jeremy Corbyn’s false claims that fewer are. Remember that perception matters in politics.
We must also demonstrate that we share younger Londoners’ social concerns. The Left like to pose as the caring side of politics. But they prefer to rely on the state to tackle the problems that affect some communities. They believe that taxing and spending is the only way to tackle poverty and deprivation.
While Conservatives can point to the failure of such policies in Venezuela or Cuba as well as other countries, it is clear that there is a strand of thought on the left that hates private compassion and charity and wants to nationalise it or hijack large NGOs for campaigning and advocacy rather than tackling poverty. They also do not care if they leave future generations in debt.
The Conservatives are the Party which truly care, the one which delivers the economy which creates the jobs. Our members – the best of them – roll up their sleeves quietly and get stuck in when members of other parties just try to score political points. We must combine the drive to restore public finances with a renewed will to revive civic society. Rolling back the frontiers of the state requires thought about the alternatives.
Conservatives need to find new ways to incentivise charitable activity, as well as placing the party at the heart of community-led initiatives to tackle the problems faced by our communities.
Clearly there is a long way to go persuade young people we are “for real”, as they might say. That is why I believe we have to fundamentally rethink how we approach them.
Young people must not just be seen as enthusiastic members who are only useful for delivering leaflets at election time, or a source of revenue for Conservative Party events. They are much more, and have the power to transform our Party.
I am delighted to hear of the initiatives underway at CCHQ which should see young Conservatives being given the tools and, just as importantly, the opportunity, to be heard and to get involved. I am also pleased to see the recognition of the need to target young people already in the world of work, through the Conservative Young Professionals.
As a 50-something, I know I don’t have all the answers and cannot rely on my own experiences of 20-30 years ago. However, I know from talking to younger constituents that not all young people think that taxing and spending more of their hard-earned money is always the answer. But if we are to persuade them that home ownership is not beyond them and that the words “compassion” and “Conservative” do indeed belong in the same breath, it will be more through our actions than our words. We need to give them more platforms for their voices to be heard and to feed into future Conservative policies. Starting with a Youth Reboot.