By Thomas Sherlock
As the dust settles from the general election politicians and commentators have been running wild trying to identify what exactly went wrong for Theresa May’s gambit. There have been many pieces written about the reception to the Tories’ manifesto, Labour’s strong campaign and Theresa May’s lacklustre performance, but it seems the media and the Conservative Party have chosen to focus on one particular weakness the election clearly exposed-the Tories have a serious problem with young voters.
According to IPSOS Mori turnout of voters aged 18-25 was 64%, compared to 43% in 2015-it’s clear that young people are now actively engaged in politics in a way they weren’t before. By the looks of things they’re not going the Tories’ way, with YouGov’s analysis of the election findings that of 18-20 year olds 66% voted Labour whereas 19% voted Conservative, with a similar finding for 20-24 year olds of which 22% were for the Conservatives and 62% Labour. It’s clear the Tories have a problem, how to solve it however seems to be eluding them.
The Tories’ fundamental problem with young voters is that for a number of years they’ve pretty much ignored them. There hasn’t even been a formal youth wing of the party since the shutdown of Conservative Future in 2015. A browse of this year’s Conservative manifesto demonstrates few policies actually affecting anyone who’s left school and is under 25; a quick word search indicates universities are mentioned four times, students eleven times and apprentices (including apprenticeship) eleven times, whereas pension (including variations such as pensioners) appears thirty-eight times. Whilst I admit this is hardly the most scientific form of analysis, it does demonstrate where the Conservatives’ priorities lay-and that’s their problem.
So what are the Tories to do? Much noise about them appealing to young voters was made prior to the conference, and did materialise in the form of the freeze on further increases of tuition fees (and a promise to review the entire policy) and a planned extension of the Help to Buy scheme, in the hopes of helping younger generations get on the housing ladder. But is this enough to course-correct the party? The very manner of how these policies were announced betrays a lack of understanding about reaching young people-the first announcement on tuition fees changes was made via The Sunday Telegraph, which is not exactly renowned for its student readership. There are debates about setting up another formal youth wing, an advocate of which is Party Chairman Eric Pickles, however that idea has doubters due to the fact that part of the success of Momentum was that it was outside the Labour Party, not set up by the establishment-so how could this new wing replicate its success? Numerous speeches along these lines were made, with one clear message emerging: something needs to change, but no-one seems to know, let alone agree, on precisely what. This muddled response makes clear the Conservative Party simply don’t know what to do to connect to younger generations, which is quite understandable with a party membership whose average age is in the 60s.
Another problem the Tories face is Brexit. The Conservative Party’s hard-line take on Brexit is the anathema to the younger generation of voters, the majority of who voted to Remain. The fixation on Brexit only creates a dividing line between the Conservative Party and the majority of young voters, meaning even before discussing wider policies the party faces an uphill battle. This was even raised at a fringe event to the Conservative Conference by justice minister Philip Lee, who likened how toxically the Tories’ hard Brexit plans were viewed by younger voters to views on Trump’s border wall.
Of course a look at the Tories’ recent efforts to win the young vote would be incomplete without a look at Activate. Activate, in theory the conservative equivalent to Momentum, was quickly infamous for the ‘gas chavs’ WhatsApp chat furore and has since quietly disappeared into the background. Given its poor start, it’s not hard to imagine Activate going the same way as Conservative Future. To coin a bad pun, it certainly seems to lack a certain momentum.
Is this a lost cause then? Are the Tories doomed to struggle against a tide of youthful Labour voters? Not necessarily. While youth turnout may be high now, there is every chance it could drop off again by 2022-this engagement could well be fleeting, rendering all this speculation a moot exercise. If the Conservatives do pull themselves together and find a message for young people, there isn’t necessarily anything stopping the Conservatives winning them round, back in 2006 Conservative Future actually had a bigger membership than Labour’s or the Liberal Democrats’ youth wings. The difficulty for the Tories seems to be none of them yet have that message, and with Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity seemingly holding firm, they need to find that message quickly if they have any hopes of winning this generation over.
Forward Together: Our Plan for a Stronger and a Prosperous Future-The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2017