Prime Minister Theresa May closed the Tory Party conference with a rambling speech on Conservative values, Brexit, economic and social policy. Many wondered whether the embattled leader had done enough to heal, or at least paper over, the much-noted divisions within her own party and cabinet for now. But the more important question is whether she’s doing enough to win the support of younger voters. That is the only way the Tory Party, with or without May, can keep power.
In the June election, the Labour Party received three votes for every one Conservative vote cast among the under 30s; it was only among the age groups over 50 where Conservatives managed to maintain a lead. Not only has Conservative Party support among younger voters fallen off a cliff, but never in the last 40 years has there been such a marked difference between the voting behavior of those up to their early 40s and the rest. And this isn’t just the very young: The tipping point at which a voter switches from Labour to Conservative is now around 47. No wonder the Conservatives lost their governing majority. Conservatives have in the past done a decent job of appealing to younger generations. Between 1979, when Margaret Thatcher won the election for the Conservative Party, and 1992, the Conservatives actually led Labour among those aged 25 to 34. Even among the more youthful 18-to-24 age group, which skews left, Conservatives managed to attract more support than Labour in the early years of Thatcher’s premiership, in both the 1979 and 1983 general elections.
Many young people were sold on Thatcher’s aspirational vision for the future. At a time of economic misery – one in which state interventions seemed to be making things worse—her message of personal freedom and flexibility was intoxicating. Thatcher understood that people needed a stake in society, something which led her to encourage entrepreneurship, privatize utilities and, perhaps most significantly, sell off state owned council houses (on the cheap) to tenants.
By the 1990s, and after two deep recessions, the promises of upward mobility and home ownership for all were starting to look half-baked. New home-owners and business start-ups were facing the brutal reality of sky-high interest rates, global competition and exchange rate fluctuations. Not only had the hard left lost credibility, but so too now had the Conservatives. That remained the case until May’s predecessor, Conservative leader David Cameron, managed to attract younger voters back to the fold in 2010 with a socially liberal agenda.
Wooing younger voters requires a compelling leader, appealing policies and clear vision. The Conservatives are weak on all three. Theresa May has proposed a sort of Labour-lite agenda. Labour wants, unrealistically, to scrap university tuition fees; the Tories are proposing to cap them. Labour wants to nationalize a swathe of industries; the Tories are proposing to cap energy prices.
But if Conservatives are to rebuild a majority coalition that includes younger voters (and by that I mean people in their 30s and 40s as well as in their 20s) they will need to do more than propose watered down Labour Party policies.
For those who came of age in a financial crisis that was commonly blamed on capitalism, Conservatives need to show how pro-market policies can be used to solve the problems young voters face today, including the lack of affordable housing. While Theresa May is now promising additional financial help for those trying to get on the housing ladder along with a significant expansion of social housing, they could do much more to loosen planning regulations that restrict private sector supply.
Cheaper housing isn’t the only solution. Conservatives could advocate greater support for new entrepreneurs, including a simpler tax code, basic business accounts courses, support for alternative funding platforms and making sure that small business are paid on time. They could promote help with retraining and education throughout adulthood, of the kind provided in Singapore, to win the confidence of younger (and 30-something) voters who worry about whether their skills will be dated. In light of the more flexible labour market, which leaves many workers more vulnerable, the state also needs to rethink the welfare safety net, making it better able to protect the self-employed and gig-economy workers.
Finally, Conservatives need to embrace a more culturally liberal agenda. Young people are tired of hearing older generations tell them that society has “broken down.” (Try living life as a woman, a divorcee, an ethnic minority or a homosexual 50 years ago.) Here, Conservatives need to re-visit Milton Friedman, particularly his argument that markets are not just about efficiency—they are also the only way of guaranteeing personal freedom. This type of pro-freedom agenda would appeal not only to millennials but also to the “cosmopolitan elites,” who have similarly deserted the Conservatives.
The young are left feeling like their country is restricting economic opportunities at home while also closing off freedom of movement to Europe. Posturing in preparation for Brexit negotiations has made the Conservatives appear nationalistic and aloof. The support deal which May’s minority government has struck with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, can’t help matters. It’s hard for them to see how any of it comports with May’s promise of a “British dream” fulfilled.
Today’s young don’t remember the power outages, trade union strikes and record inflation of the last time a socialist-oriented Labour Party was in power, back in the 1970s. They are more open to a socialist-led government than any voter block has been for decades, as a new Legatum Institute Report shows. They want to feel free to travel and study across Europe, and to forge relationships with people from overseas. At the moment, many believe that the Labour Party embodies those values far better than the Tories.