The Tories have an age problem. In June’s general election, some two-thirds of British voters aged 18-25 voted Labour. Only one in five voted Conservative. That’s got the party worried — and rightly so.
Once upon a time, statistics like these were easier to dismiss. Young people might lean left rather than right, but since so many of them couldn’t be bothered to actually turn up at polling stations on the day, did it really matter? And weren’t they bound to see sense as they got older anyway?
Well, no actually. There is some evidence that people become slightly more conservative as they get older, but this “life-cycle” effect is potentially offset by a “cohort effect” — the idea that, since generations carry their early political preferences with them as they age, any party that loses young voters will pay a high price as time passes.
Seen from this perspective, last summer’s election is even more worrying for the Tories than it appeared at first glance.
True, they beat Labour hands down (59 percent to 23 percent) when it came to the over 65s, and comfortably (47 percent to 33 percent) when it came to those aged 55 to 64.
But among those aged between 45 to 54, Labour drew level (taking 39 percent to the Conservatives’ 40 percent). And what’s most alarming: Among 35- to 44-year-olds, Labour won by 50 percent to 30 percent, and among 25- to 34-year-olds, it led by 58 percent to 22 percent.
Admittedly, younger people — and not only in the U.K. — still vote in significantly smaller numbers than older generations. But in the 2017 election, the gap between young and old narrowed noticeably.
Wandering around and talking to people at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, it’s obvious that a fair number of Tories know they have a problem and are beginning to wonder what they can do.
And yet, just when you think the Conservatives might figure something out, along comes a minister — in this case, self-sabotaging failed leadership contender Andrea Leadsom — to provide yet another face-palm moment.
Speaking about the brave new world that Brexit apparently constitutes for Britain’s young people (most of whom voted against it), she reassured them that “For some of you it may feel scary. But for me, on your behalf, it’s really exciting.”
If that weren’t patronizing enough, she went on to remind them of “the incredible advances in medical science, where your generation will have things fixed by robots — isn’t that extraordinary? Not only that, but probably your raspberries will be picked by robots.”
Perhaps some young adults — yes, they are adults, not toddlers — can’t wait to munch on machine-harvested fruit while recovering from android-assisted surgery. But knowing a few of them as I do in my day job as a university lecturer, I doubt that such a vision will prove sufficient to assuage their anxieties about securing a decent job.
Nor will it do much for their paramount concern: getting on the country’s increasingly unaffordable — some would say broken — housing ladder.
They’re also understandably concerned that NHS waiting lists are getting longer and longer, and primary and secondary schools are losing resources.
The Tories will have to come up with something convincing to offer people in their 20s, 30s and 40s on bread-and-butter issues if they are to have any hope of clawing back some of the support they have lost to Labour in recent years.
And doing something about university tuition fees, as the government announced it would this week, won’t cut it. Drill down into post-election survey analysis, and you will see that young people have fled the Tories because they are anxious about their future — not just because they are current or former students.
Changing how the Conservatives look and sound — and, quite frankly, are — as a party might help too. Research by the ESRC-funded Party Members Project run by Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, suggests that nearly seven in 10 grassroots Tories are men and nine in 10 are middle-class, as opposed to working-class. It also suggests that close to half of the party’s grassroots members are older than 65, while only a quarter are aged between 18 and 45.
Attracting younger members, as well as more working-class and female members, might help address another of the party’s challenges: their members’ ability to assist the party on social media compared to their Labour counterparts.
But, crucial as it is, upping the party’s game on Facebook and Twitter won’t be enough to win back young voters on its own. Neither will scrambling to set up some half-arsed equivalent to Labour’s Momentum. Nor, by the way, will replacing Theresa May with Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg do the trick.
True, as Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has shown, the right leader can help enthuse and mobilize young people. But in the end, a party needs to persuade them that it’s on their side. For the Tories, that prospect still seems an awfully long way off.
Originally published at https://www.politico.eu/article/omg-britains-tories-conservatives-party-are-so-old-demographics/