Suella Braverman is MP for Fareham.
When I joined the Conservative Party as a teenager, some 20 years ago, it wasn’t very cool in Wembley, where I lived. When I was involved in my University Conservative branch at Cambridge in the early 2000s, Blair-supporting friends were constantly baffled by my political allegiance. Starting my career as a young barrister in London, I was the shy Tory in my Chambers of ‘right-on’ human rights lawyers. Despite the social stigma, I was inspired by Conservative values of freedom from an interventionist state, personal responsibility and choice, and aspiration for all regardless of background. I wonder whether today, under a Conservative government, things have changed?
The evidence suggests not.
This month’s excellent report produced by Onward is essential reading for any Conservative thinking about the future of our party. The diagnosis was clear: younger voters are generally not voting Conservative. The trend was reflected at the 2017 General Election, when 62 per cent of 18-24 year olds supported Labour whilst only 27 per cent supported the Conservatives. Yet even in 2018, when the Labour Party’s support fell by 12 percentage points, 18-24 year olds didn’t then choose the Conservative Party, but rather fell into the categories of ‘don’t know’ or ‘will not vote’.
The prognosis set out by Onward is compelling: it is getting worse. The age at which people start to vote Conservative has risen from 47 to 51 years old since the last election.
We can claim that the shallow and unrealistic promises made by Labour lured younger, naive voters. We can sit back and just wait, on the assumption that nature will take its course and inexperienced voters will eventually outgrow their innate left-leaning tendencies.
Or we can face up to the reality of steady decline in youth support for our party. A party cannot succeed when the average of its members is claimed to be 72 years old. We can urgently take action to win the next election and save our country from Corbyn by revitalising the case for centre-right, small-state, social justice conservatism to inspire a new generation in Britain.
The Party has made some progress. There are new Young Conservative branches springing up all over the country, recently for instance in Fareham, where energetic young people are joining our party. And many of our leading politicians are persuasively making the case for free markets, liberty and enterprise despite a growing consensus from the left that the state knows best and that raising taxes will solve our challenges.
However, we need to go further – and faster – to actually produce and advocate policies that directly affect the under-35s. And explain afresh why lower taxes and fewer regulations empower communities and produce wealth. How aspirational young people can realise their dreams by taking responsibility over their own lives and that the government doesn’t always have the panacea. Why, for Conservatives, compassion and fairness are intrinsically linked to duty, endeavour and opportunity for all.
Not only should our Young Conservative branches become hotbeds for political discussion, as well as campaigning, but whoever leads us into the next General Election should produce a specific ‘Next Generation Manifesto’ written for younger voters and published alongside our broader and principal Party Manifesto.
The Next Generation Manifesto would cover the main issues that we know younger voters prioritise. According to Bright Blue these are health (primarily mental health), climate change and education. Not only have we made headway in these areas, but we should be amplifying our commitment to them in a way that reflects the main concerns of this age group.
Onward set out a 10-point plan to rejuvenate the centre-right amongst younger voters. Their report concluded that a majority of 18-24 year olds strongly support lower taxes, a government that lives within its means, controlling migration, protecting the environment, enhancing community and prioritising apprenticeships and vocational training over university. Here, we have the skeleton for the Next Generation Manifesto laid out.
The process for the formulation of a Next Generation Manifesto could also include our Young Conservatives as well as the traditional routes for preparing our manifesto at the national level. Local, regional and national Young Conservative policy meetings could start this process now by identifying what younger people are looking for from their political leaders so that the Next Generation Manifesto has legitimacy of representing the ‘youth voice’ whilst also rendering the incentive for younger member participation in our party tangible.
Conservative values are not anathema to younger people. It is up to us to communicate why.