Through their arrogance and sheer incompetence, the Tories have turned an entire generation away from conservative politics. But the solution is not to go marching off to the socialist Left
It doesn’t have to be like this.
It doesn’t have to be the case that people under 30 years of age vote so overwhelmingly for the parties of the Left, predominantly the Labour Party, while the Conservatives manage to sweep up barely a fifth of the youth vote.
The Tories have shot themselves in the foot by failing to court the youth vote or even speak to their concerns, the result of unbridled arrogance and sheer political incompetence. But the situation is not irreversible, if the right action is taken quickly. Unfortunately, the Tories – hopeless keepers of the conservative flame – look set to learn all of the wrong lessons.
I discussed this on my election night live blog and then again in this separate piece, but since that time several other commentators have jumped into the fray with their own takes, and it’s worth seeing what they have to say.
Former cabinet minister (sacked by Theresa May in her Weakness Reshuffle) and Harlow MP Robert Halfon won a lot of plaudits before the election for being one of few Tories to understand the need to reach out once more to the aspirational working class, and again after the election for criticising the Tories’ lack of vision going into the campaign.
From the Guardian:
Robert Halfon, who lost his frontbench role as minister for skills on Tuesday, said the Conservative party was “on death row” and had failed to offer a positive vision to voters.
The Harlow MP was scathing about the election campaign in which the prime minister lost her Commons majority, saying the Tories did not have a message to rival Labour’s promise to stand up “for the many not the few”.
Writing in the Sun, he said: “The Conservative party is on death row. Unless we reform our values, our membership offering and our party infrastructure, we face defeat at the next election – and potentially years of opposition.
“If we don’t change it wouldn’t matter if we had Alexander the Great or the Archangel Gabriel as leader. We face the wilderness.”
In an attack aimed at the Tory hierarchy – and campaign guru Sir Lynton Crosby – Halfon said: “Our election campaign portrayed us as a party devoid of values. ‘Strong and stable’ is hardly a battle cry. I cannot remember a time in the campaign when the Conservatives attempted to explain what we are really about: the party of the ladder, of aspiration and of opportunity.
“We let ourselves be perceived primarily as the party of ‘austerity’, failing entirely to campaign on our record of a strong economy or strong employment.
“Virtually nothing was said on the NHS or schools or the caring professions that work within them. Instead we created fear among pensioners, and threatened to take away school meals, handing a gift to our opponents. Is it any wonder that the Conservatives did not get a majority?”
Yes and no. Halfon is absolutely right to criticise the Tory campaign for its lack of a positive vision of any kind, let alone a coherent, recognisably conservative vision. But the specific targets of Halfon’s ire are all wrong. To follow his advice, the Tories should have engaged in a race with the Labour Party to shower praise and money on an unreformed NHS, wittered on endlessly about public services and exacerbated Britain’s corrosive culture of universal benefits, where everyone becomes accustomed to receiving handouts from the state regardless of their wealth or individual circumstances (see free school meals, the winter fuel allowance, child benefit and so on).
At least the Cameron/Osborne government, ideologically woolly as it was, made a token strike against universal benefits culture with their child benefit cap. Robert Halfon now sees support for giving benefits to people who don’t need them as the price of political survival. If this is true then there may as well not be a Conservative Party at all, because the Labour socialists will have won the war.
Here’s Nicholas Mazzei, writing in Conservative Home:
“Yeah I did; he was gonna write off my student loan. Come on!”
These were the words of a 25-year-old voter who text me early this morning, who had always voted Conservative and, up until the campaign began 5 weeks ago, was anti-Corbyn.
If you want to understand why the youth vote surged for Corbyn, I want you to read that line and look at the offer the Conservatives have made to the youth of Britain from our own manifesto. From this 25-year old’s own words, “the Conservatives have done nothing to reach out to those under-35”.
Now while most us would agree that the promises of wiping out debts and free university education by Labour were dangerous, unaffordable policies, we need to remember that the youth of the UK have been lumped with endless debts, rising costs in homes and education, and lower potential of earnings.
Much like in the US election, where voters turned out for Trump’s pro-employment message, youth voters in the UK turned out for a party which actually addressed their concerns.
Again, the problem is accurately diagnosed. The suite of Conservative Party policies, such as they were, did very little to even acknowledge the concerns of young people in a cosmetic way, let alone meaningfully address them. The Tories had no plan to encourage the building of sufficient houses to tackle the housing crisis because the status quo works just fine for their older core vote, thankyouverymuch. They remain obstinately committed to the most stubbornly self-harming form of Brexit possible, for absolutely no good reason, when most young people are sceptical of Brexit altogether.
And as icing on the cake, Theresa May and her lacklustre team preached a parsimonious message of fiscal restraint as a regrettable necessity – willingly accepting Labour’s framing of the economic debate! – rather than even attempting to sing the virtues of freedom, liberty and a smaller state dedicated to helping people in real need rather than parcelling out insufficient morsels of assistance to everybody regardless of need.
Theresa May’s team seemingly forgot that people don’t become more conservative as they get older automatically or without some prompting, and that if the Tories continually screw somebody over through their formative years, young adulthood and early middle age then they won’t magically become Tory voters when they get their first grey hair. People become more conservative as they get older because historically, sensible government policy has allowed them to become greater and greater stakeholders in society, largely through property and equity ownership. Cut off millions of young people from this ladder to prosperity and security, and the conveyor belt which gradually moves people from political Left to Right as they age will come grinding to a halt. We see this in the YouGov poll. where the Tories now only overtake Labour among those aged over 50.
But while Mazzei effectively diagnoses the problem, his solutions also seem to involve lurching to the Left:
The UK has the highest average tuition fees in the world, second only to the USA (which is at around £5300 a year compared to £6,000 in the UK). We cannot lump all this debt on to young people. Education in general needs more investment and should be protected at all costs.
No. Why should somebody without a university degree subsidise the education (and future higher earning potential) of somebody who wants a free degree? While tuition fees at some American schools are horrendously expensive and poor value for money, UK fees are much cheaper, to the extent that they still often do not even cover the full cost of tuition. They are by no means outrageous, and those unwilling to make the investment in themselves are under no obligation to attend university. If anything, the presence of tuition fees clamps down on the number of pointless degrees in non-subjects being taken by students. Lower or remove tuition fees and we will likely see an explosion in gender studies and other pointless social justice-related pseudo-courses.
The unnamed government minister who spoke scathingly to the Telegraph about the Tory election campaign hits closer to the truth:
The Conservative Party has become “too shallow” and needs a “re-invigoration of political thought” that can draw young people to the party, a minister has said.
The MP warned that the Tory election campaign had relied on “poxy little slogans” to attract the youth vote and failed to counter Jeremy Corbyn’s offer of “free money” in the form of state-funded university tuition and other hand-outs.
The minister told The Telegraph: “You’ve got to persuade a new generation of people of what’s what. We never even tried, so Corbyn just came in and basically bribed people to vote for him with other people’s money that doesn’t even exist.”
[..] The minister said: “It’s all about political education and argument. The problem with the whole campaign is that it was about politics and politicians. “Everything is too shallow. Politicians have all got their experience but they lose if they forget to re-educate a new generation. You’ve got to persuade a new generation of people of what’s what.
“This is about political persuasion and think tanks and all that stuff.”
Another MP said the party had failed to properly engage younger votes on social media, where many users were instead targeted with videos attacking Mr Corbyn.
“Frankly the party has done very, very little to engage with young people,” he said. “We have made no real effort to garner support, even on social media, which is where everybody gets their news and views these days.
Yes, a thousand times yes. The case for conservatism has to keep being made for each new generation. The very presence of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party should have been a huge wake-up call to the Tories that defunct, failed ideologies do not simply slink away to die once they are exposed and defeated.
Margaret Thatcher’s government may have rescued Britain from 1970s decline, but this was before the living memory of half the electorate. Two generations have come since the Winter of Discontent, with many in the millennial generation probably unable to even explain what it was, or how the failed socialist post-war consensus brought Britain to the brink of irreversible decline.
Thus we now have a generation of young people who take relative material abundance, peace and security for granted rather than appreciating that capitalism is the source of our prosperity, not a drain on it. A pampered generation who simply don’t realise that British and Western values need to be cherished and defended (as the Second World War and Cold War taught older generations).
Ross Clark makes the same point in The Spectator:
The under 35s have never been exposed to the negative images of socialism that were familiar to older generations. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, to my age group socialism was inescapably associated with the failures of the Soviet bloc: it conjured images of queuing half a day for a cabbage, putting your name down on a long waiting list for the prize of a choking, belching Trabant – and of getting shot if you tried to escape. To my generation, capitalism was synonymous with freedom. But I am not sure that holds for a generation who see only large, tax-dodging corporations and bankers who wrecked the economy yet carried on skimming off vast bonuses.
Neither, when reading of Jeremy Corbyn’s renationalisation plans, do the under-35s have memories of nationalised industries in Britain in the 1970s. They don’t recall the three day week, the Winter of Discontent, dirty, late trains, or realise that the chaos on Southern Railway was once symptomatic of labour relations in huge swaths of nationalised industry. All they see are over-priced trains run by private companies which have ruthlessly exploited the private monopolies which they were granted in this, the most botched of the privatisations.
The Corbynite Left (and even Labour centrists) have been incredibly adept at presenting what are really regulatory failures or corrupt crony corporatism as failures of capitalism itself, which – as shown by the willingness of young people to vote for politicians like Bernie Sanders, Jean-Luc Melenchon and Jeremy Corbyn – has led many young people to demand that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. They sit and angrily Tweet about the evils of capitalism using handheld computing devices that only capitalism made possible, and nobody in British conservative politics seemingly has the balls to point out the absurdity to them.
The anonymous government minister is absolutely right to point out that Conservatives have an existential duty to “persuade a new generation of people of what’s what”, that showering public services with endless money and taking back state control of industry would have already happened if repeated lessons from history did not show that this approach simply never works.
The minister is right too when he says “this is about political persuasion and think tanks and all that stuff”. Yes it is. But you won’t reach young people with think tanks and white papers, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that the toxic Tory brand will not persuade them of the merits of conservatism either. That’s why we need strong new independent grassroots organisations to emerge, to promote the idea of freedom, self-sufficiency and a smaller, better-targeted state as an inherently good thing in and of itself, rather than a regretful response to recession.
As I wrote the other day:
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.
[..] 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.
We particularly need to work closely with conservative organisations in the United States, which face a similar uphill struggle in overcoming a historic disinterest in the youth vote but which are now starting to have some success, generated in part by their opposition to the illiberal Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics sweeping American university campuses, with its disregard for freedom of speech and toxic obsession with the politics of victimhood.
We should be sharing best practice back and forth with American conservative organisations as to how to build strong redoubts for conservatism in overwhelmingly leftist places, so that conservatism isn’t washed away altogether. Frankly, British conservatism is in such a parlous state that we need their help. And then, once things have stabilised, we can look to reclaim some of the ground we have lost among young voters.
Skot Covert, Co-Chairman of the College Republican National Committee in the United States, offered this advice for a young conservative revival in the United States:
Due to an extended absence on the right’s part, winning the youth vote won’t be easy and it certainly won’t happen overnight. However, when the GOP communicates our policy positions in culturally relevant terms in the right mediums, we see progress. This means understanding how and where young voters communicate and having a discussion on the issues most important to them.
I believe it’s also critical to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to winning young voters. My generation is diverse and vibrant. We thrive on uniqueness and self-definition and instinctively reject the notion that we should “go with the flow”. Crafting an effective youth outreach strategy must be developed around this understanding.
This is certainly true. People crave authenticity in a politician – somebody willing to speak extemporaneously and answer straight questions honestly without first running them through a focus group or a Comms Team. Young people especially, it seems, like an optimistic, forward-looking message rather than lashings of grim tidings delivered by a malfunctioning, cautious android like Theresa May. Who knew? That’s why young people preferred socialist firebrand Bernie Sanders to calculating, establishment Hillary Clinton. That’s why Americans elected Donald Trump as their next president.
But there is no reason why these qualities of openness and relatability cannot be vested in a politician who doesn’t hail from the hard left or the populist pseudo-right. There is no reason why a liberty-minded Conservative MP could not similarly enthuse young people with a message of individual liberty, economic freedom and the advantages (rather than the costs) of restraining the state.
Anoosh Chakelian explains in the New Statesman just how Jeremy Corbyn and Corbyn-supporting outside groups used this quality of authenticity to their advantage:
Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign focused heavily on young people – a key manifesto pledge being to scrap tuition fees. His campaign style – rallies across the country, and fewer stage-managed speeches and press conferences than Theresa May – also appealed more to this demographic.
In addition, Labour had viral news on its side. As BuzzFeed reported, pro-Corbyn articles by “alt-left” sites were shared on an enormous scale on social media. I hear that nearly 25 per cent of UK Facebook users watched a Momentum video on the website in the penultimate week of campaigning. This is a particularly effective way of reaching young people, and inspiring them to vote – something the Tories weren’t as good at.
But who in the current Conservative Party hierarchy is remotely equipped for this task? Boris Johnson is probably the most charismatic of the senior Tories, but even he could never pack a large 2000-seat theatre for a political rally the way that Jeremy Corbyn can. And of course Boris Johnson is something of a charlatan, with sky-high negative ratings and absolutely no fixed political compass.
The cold hard truth is that the Tories don’t have anybody who can match Jeremy Corbyn for charisma right now – and how depressing that is. The best we can hope for is to give some of the better backbenchers (I keep banging on about Kwasi Kwarteng and James Cleverly) some ministerial experience to groom them for a few years down the road, but rather than looking to the future, Theresa May seems to have decided to keep her cabinet stuffed full of bland non-entities with her latest reshuffle. In her infinite wisdom.
That’s why we cannot rely on the Conservative Party to save conservatism from itself. The Tory party is corrupt, inbred, nepotistic, dysfunctional and ideologically bankrupt. Right now they are seriously considering skipping after Jeremy Corbyn on a fun political jaunt even further to the hard Left. Yes, somehow the Tories squandered the opportunity to use Corbyn’s rise to move the Overton Window of British politics further to the right, and instead are doing all they can to help him shift it to the left. These people are incompetent clowns who cannot be trusted to walk with scissors, let alone safeguard the ideology and worldview which we depend on to keep us prosperous and free.
We need outside groups to pick up the burden so shamefully dropped by Theresa May and her dysfunctional party. Student organisations, business organisations, bloggers, the works. The Tory Party as it currently stands will never persuade any more young people to vote Conservative. We need outside organisations with legitimacy and untainted reputations to make the positive case for conservative, pro-market values, and then pressure the Tories to hold the line rather than fight every battle on Labour’s terms.
I repeat: do not look to the Conservative Party to successfully engineer an improvement in the youth vote. The Tories are not going to make things any easier for themselves when it comes to youth outreach, and given the level of competence exhibited by CCHQ they have the potential to make things a whole lot worse.
We few young small-C conservatives need to pick up the slack ourselves.
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