As a twenty-three-year-old who owes their career to ConservativeHome, I’m aware that I am somewhat unusual amongst today’s millennials and Gen Zers in where I have chosen to hitch my flag. An epochal shift in values has made Toryism beyond the pale amongst my fellow youngsters.
John Burn-Murdoch, in The Financial Times, has highlighted that millennials are shattering the oldest rule in politics. That voters get more conservative as they age has been the central comfort of centre-right parties for decades. Unfortunately for our future readership numbers, that does not appear to be the case for those born between 1981 and 1996. We Tory boys are going extinct.
Burn-Murdoch’s figures are striking. Voters from Britain’s “silent generation”, born between 1928 and 1945, were five percentage points less conservative than the national average at age 35, but around five points more conservative by the time they hit 70s. The “baby boomers” followed the same trend, as did “Gen X” (born between 1965 and 1980).
Millennials, however, are not playing ball with the best-laid plans of CCHQ. Rather than be five points less conservative than the national average at the age of 35, millennials are closer to 15 points less conservative – an unprecedented gap.
In explaining this ‘liberal exceptionalism’ (as he terms it), Burn-Murdoch says we must go beyond the short-term. Our fatal flirtation with Trussonomics may have shattered our poll ratings, but this unpopularity goes back further. Millennials are the generation that became politically aware around the 2008 financial crisis and have entered an economy rigged against them. They have only known sluggish growth, higher taxes, and even higher house prices.
Add to this the particularly poisonous issue of Brexit. As Burn-Murdoch points out, Brexit alienated a large chunk of millennial voters whose socio-economic position would usually have them as nailed on Tory voters. Two-thirds of millennials who voted for the party before the EU referendum no longer would vote Tory, and one in four express a newfound loathing for the party. Unfortunately for me, this group disproportionately includes pretty middle-class girls that you meet at North London parties.
All this adds up to a situation where only 15 per cent of those aged 25-49 (and only 2 per cent of my fellow 18-24-year-olds) plan to vote Conservative at the next election, according to a recent YouGov poll. ‘Dishy Rishi’ can win their hearts, but unfortunately not their minds. The British Election Survey once showed little difference in the voting patterns of under and over 65 pre-2001. By 2017, it was 40 points wide – and almost put Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10. This is an existential threat to our party’s future.
What is to be done? Burn-Murdoch suggests the best way for the Tories to address the problem would be to produce economic policies catered to their interests, like backing planning reform and the loosening of childcare restrictions. Which is unfortunate, after recent headlines.
Obviously, making life easier for ‘Generation Rent’ is a no-brainer. As the Prime Minister’s new Political Secretary has pointed out, in 1990, the homeownership rate for London households under someone aged 35 to 44 was 69 per cent, and the Tories held 57 out of 84 seats in the capital. By 2019, less than half were homeowners, and the Tories were down to only 21 out of 73 London seats. To prevent this story from being repeated across the country, we need housing to become more affordable, and fast.
But millennial (or Gen Z) Tory commentators railing against the inequities of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act has become so common as to be passé. More importantly, building hundreds of thousands of new homes is necessary to give the Conservatives any chance of avoiding a demographic disaster, but not sufficient.
By focusing primarily on economics, Burn-Murdoch has missed the extent to which politics has become values-based – what Stephen Davies of the IEA calls the “great realignment”. Both Ed West and Joe Hackett have written in detail about how Brits under forty look very different from their elders. Mot only demographically – being more ethnically diverse, urban, and university-educated – but in terms of their basic views.
I loathe the word ‘w*ke’, but it is the easiest shorthand for the deep-rooted progressivism of millennials. Not just on Brexit but on immigration, transgender rights, race, and every other liberal touchstone, they trend far to the left of the average Conservative voter. Our victory in 2019 was large but built on a coalition of demographic losers – the old against the young, the provincial against the urban, Leavers against Remainers.
Right now, keeping these voters onside is the easiest route to victory. But we’re in 4th-century Rome, and we’re backing the pagans against the Christians. If Johnson was our Julian the Apostate, he failed spectacularly – and Sunak is just too damned nice to play the culture war for keeps. The ‘Meji Restoration’ government floated by our Deputy Editor remains a long way off.
After a couple of centuries of success, is the Conservative Party therefore doomed to decline and fall? Before Gibbon’s inheritors get their book deals sorted, and in the spirit of new year optimism, there is at least some historical and contemporary evidence to suggest all is not yet lost.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher took the Tory vote amongst 18-24 year olds from 24 per cent to 42 per cent. In 2010, David Cameron won 25-34 year olds by five points, against competition from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In both cases, they were running against a Labour government that seemed tired and overwhelmed, suggesting a future Tory government might be the product of Labour incompetence.
They also came after a period of soul-searching and a ‘modernisation’ of the party’s image – a conscious effort to detoxify a party that, in both cases, had only won a majority once in the previous five elections. Hugging huskies and supporting the Right to Buy may elicit different reactions in the memories of today’s Tories, but both sought to send the same message to voters.
So if the party wants to win over millennials, it is going to have to meet them halfway. Expect a reverse on Brexit or gender self-ID in the next two decades (buy Noakes, sell Badenoch). Combine this with a policy prospectus that is resolutely YIMBY – economic and social liberalism, rather than Blue Labour-style social and economic conservatism.
It can be done. Pierre Poilievre, the leader of our Canadian counterparts, has built on his party’s success in reaching out to ethnic minority voters by majoring on the high cost of housing for Canada’s young people. Since February last year, he has taken the Canadian Conservatives to first place amongst young adults, ahead of both Justin Trudeau’s government and the country’s Liberal Democrat equivalents. It does help, of course, that the clown prince of ‘w*ke’ has been in power for almost eight years.
So whilst our party’s prospects amongst millennials may initially look terminal, all is not lost. But it will require facing reality, changing to appeal to existing voter groups, and slaying a few sacred cows. In that sense, it might be a new year, but the arguments remain the same.