British conservatives can no longer afford to cede the youth vote to the parties of the Left without putting up a fight for their hearts and minds
One thing seems absolutely crystal clear to me: the Conservative Party can no longer allow itself to glibly write off almost the entire youth vote and cede youth politics to the various parties of the left.
In some ways, Jeremy Corbyn seems like a most implausible politician to court the youth vote – an old, grey haired career politician with absolutely zero interest in doing anything fashionable, sartorially or politically. But my god, he is an authentic conviction politician. And if your average voter hates overgroomed, telegenic bland politico-bots then young people clearly hate them even more. Canned soundbites don’t work on social media-savvy young people, if they work on anyone. And yet the Conservatives went into battle – largely thanks to the “genius” Lynton Crosby – with an arsenal made up almost exclusively of glib, canned soundbites in place of anything remotely authentic.
Not that authenticity alone is enough. Right wing politics are clearly hugely toxic to many young people, who would sooner die than consider voting Conservative, let alone admitting any conservative leanings to their social circle. The Tories are too closely associated with grey, uninspiring “austerity”, even though austerity is largely a myth. The Tory brand, fair or unfair, is still toxic to many people. And the parties of the left have perfectly tapped into the consumerist politics of Me Me Me by promising to firehose endless sums of money into the gaping, insatiable mouth of Britain’s public services.
It seems painfully apparent to me that we need a prominent, national vessel for the development and promotion conservative policies (and personalities) separate from the Conservative Party, which simply can no longer be trusted to make the case for its own worldview. I wrote ages ago, back in 2015, that we need a British CPAC – a well funded and media savvy conservative campaign group which exists outside the dusty, dysfunctional Tories.
CPAC is the Conservative Political Action Conference in the United States, and while it has had its share of controversies it serves an important role in nurturing small-C conservative talent, seeding new ideas and generally providing an opportunity for advancement and self-promotion outside the structures of the Republican Party. It also plays a role in youth outreach, as do other organisations like Ron Paul’s Young Americans for Liberty.
The seeds of such a movement already exist – there is the excellent Conservatives for Liberty group, for which I am proud to have written numerous times. But for all the good work they do, they remain associated directly with the Tory brand and are too easily sidelined when a rabid anti-Thatcherite like Theresa May seizes control of the party and tries to drag it to the statist centre-left. Meanwhile, other think tanks which sometimes do good work (and sometimes not so good) – the Adam Smith Institute, the IEA, the Centre for Policy Studies – are very much of the political elite and by the political elite. They have neither the makings of a mass movement, nor the inclination to become one – and quite rightly, for this is not their speciality.
Worse still, the Conservative Party’s own efforts to build a youth wing tend to attract the kind of tweed-wearing teens and twenty-somethings who only further the perception of the party as being for posh, wealthy and generally insufferable types. Conservative Future, their most recent attempt, seemed to operate like a kind of pyramid scheme with promises of future candidacies dangled in front of naive young activists, and was rife with a bullying culture which led to the group’s closure.
No. For reasons of branding and basic administrative competence, any future small-C conservative movement hoping to gain traction with young people must be distinct from the Conservative Party, free of that residual toxicity and free to criticise the Tory party in government and in opposition when it proposes policies which either betray core values or threaten the interests of young people. A British CPAC and Young Brits for Liberty-style organisation could nurture talent of its own, outside the corrupting, nepotistic influence of the Conservative Party hierarchy, and would greatly increase their collective clout by helping or withholding support from future Tory election campaigns and individual candidacies based on policy, not party loyalty.
It is only through outside groups like this that the image of conservatism stands a chance of being rehabilitated among young people. It is only through a British version of CPAC or YAF that young conservative or agnostic students at university stand a chance against being steamrollered by the fashionable left-wing identity politics which are almost de rigeur for social acceptance and advancement.
Look at the people who might be considered contenders to take over from Theresa May when she is rightly consigned to the dustbin of conservative political history. Do you see the youth vote ever breaking in significant numbers for Philip Hammond or Michael Fallon? David Davis or Michael Gove? Maybe Boris Johnson might win a few, but he is widely hated by starry-eyed young Europhiles for supposedly “taking away their future”.
No, the future Conservative leader who stands even a chance of fighting the parties of the left for the youth vote must come up from outside the existing party structure, if they are to emerge at all. They must articulate a message of conservatism as being pro-freedom, pro-opportunity, pro-dynamism. Some compromises must be made, with the party finally addressing issues which screw the younger generation and force them into the waiting arms of the Labour Party – a serious housebuilding programme (not council houses, but houses for private sale and rent) for example. The end of universal benefits being lavished upon rich, self-entitled pensioners who don’t need them.
The Tories need a leader who can make self-sufficiency and freedom seem cool rather than callous, admirable rather than shameful, particularly to younger voters. I don’t see anybody on the Conservative front bench who stands a chance of doing that. Maybe James Cleverly or Kwasi Kwarteng from the backbenches, if they were to step up and gain some ministerial experience? Priti Patel?
Regardless, one thing is clear: the Tories can no longer be relied upon to keep the torch of conservatism lit by themselves. Theresa May half extinguished it with her statist left-wing manifesto, half stolen from the Labour Party, and her inept campaigning and toxicity among young people provided the final coup-de-grace.
We need a strong external repository for conservative principle, capable of engaging with young people who have been continually taught that leftist progressivism = forward-thinking “compassion” while liberty, independence and self-sufficiency from government are evidence of greed and moral failure.
Theresa May’s Conservative Party shamefully surrendered the youth vote without so much as trying to win them over. The broader British conservative movement must learn from this dismal failure and ensure that it is never repeated.
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There is only one answer to your blog and only one person – Ruth Davidson – who can help get rid of the “nasty party” image: who has youth on her side, who is dynamic, energetic and DIFFERENT! The other suggestions you put forward, like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Priti Patel, pale by comparison I just hope that she has the guts, desire and the will to go for it.
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I agree with you that Davidson would be an energetic, empathetic, telegenic choice. I don’t know enough about her full suite of policy positions or her worldview to make a judgment as to whether she would be good for the direction of the conservative movement as a whole, but perhaps that issue takes a back seat now, anyway. Perhaps what is needed most is to find somebody who can stop the rot and actually stand a chance of engaging the youth vote. Assuming that premise, Davidson would certainly be a good pick. All of the Tory MPs I think of as being potentially promising (James Cleverly, Kwasi Kwarteng) have no frontbench experience yet and need more time to “cook”, assuming they even want to pursue the leadership one day.