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26 August 2022

The Conservatives can’t rely on older voters forever

The next election, in 2024, will be the last time the Tories can afford not to have an answer on inter-generational inequality.

By John Oxley

It is hardly news that Conservative voters skew old. In 2017, the crossover point – where voters became more likely to vote Tory than Labour – sat at the age of 47. While it’s true that Boris Johnson pulled off a tremendous feat in 2019 by winning sections of the electorate that rarely support the Conservatives, bringing the average age of a Tory voter down to 39, it was something of an aberration, driven by Brexit’s appeal to working-class voters. But with support diminishing in the Red Wall seats of northern England, that crossover age will likely rise again.

For now, inter-generational inequality works to the Conservatives’ electoral advantage. Older cohorts are more likely to vote, more likely to vote Conservative, and concentrated in suburban and rural constituencies – tipping elections to the Tories under first past the post.

The party knows this and has become increasingly captive to its ageing base. The Tories indulge local campaigns by the ageing and well-housed to stop house-building, pose for tweets with retirees in threatened fields, while citing platitudes about affordability for local people. They remain tethered to the triple lock, which ties pensions to inflation while wages flounder, and feed geriatric fantasies like bringing back imperial weights and measures.

This trend has been even more stark during the Tory leadership contest. Estimates suggest the average Conservative Party member is in their late fifties. It equates to an electorate that is generally towards the end of their careers or retired. Whatever the hardships of their youth, they are now likely to be comfortably off (around a quarter of pensioner households are millionaires) and see the rise in house prices as their boon, rather than a barrier to growth.

[See also: Liz Truss faces a tricky return to parliament]

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The leadership contest has been noticeably quiet on the issues affecting younger voters, even those the Tories ought to court. Discussions on housing have largely been focused on stopping building, with some minor policies to juice the demand side. Almost nothing has been offered on childcare costs by either candidate, nor on the student loans system which pushes some graduate professionals to a 60 per cent marginal tax rate. Whoever wins the vote in ten days’ time, they will have offered little to the under-40s.

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Looking at the views of the Tory-voting older cohort, this absence is hardly surprising. Many of them seem not just indifferent to the younger generations, but actively hostile to their interests. A Telegraph leader this week, provocatively titled “It’s time for the young to pay for us and stop complaining”, may have been clickbait, but the sentiments expressed by the paper’s readers were real. The older generation feels strongly that they paid into the system all their lives and can now sit back and enjoy the benefits (though they will tell you a pension isn’t a benefit) – no matter the economic illiteracy of this position. There is nothing to be gained for the Tories to play to the young.

Indeed, the only real electoral setback the Tories suffered in recent years has been when they tried to redress the bias towards older voters. It was Theresa May’s social care plan that crashed the 2017 manifesto, angering ageing Tory voters, with those in their fifties and sixties worried about a double hit to their parents’ situation and the long-term impact on their own care. Even though the plan would have helped poorer older people, richer Tories worried about having to sell their houses and deny their children an inheritance; they rebelled, harming the party in a campaign that lost May her slim majority. Since then, Conservatives have learned their lesson and left well alone.

Yet the party cannot continue to pay attention only to older people. By definition, it is a diminishing vote, and it remains unclear that it will be replaced as people in the cohort below get older. The party seems to place its stock in the idea that ageing turns you into a Tory, but this is far from guaranteed. In the past, younger cohorts have been more open to voting Conservative either from the off (many came of age supporting Thatcher, only to move to Blair in the 1990s and then back to the Tories again), or because of their own increasing prosperity. Neither of these factors seem at play now.

The under-40s are both culturally and economically alienated from the Tories. They are more likely to have higher education, growing up after the expansion of university places; more ethnically diverse; and unlikely to have voted for Brexit. Equally, even relatively high-earning young people have suffered from the decade-long squeeze on wages, combined with rising house prices and the escalating costs of raising a family.

By the election after next, sometime in the late 2020s, these will no longer be “younger voter” issues. Without serious action, most of those under-45s will be suffering from soaring living costs and a stagnating economy. Equally, as these voters age they will be pushed out of urban areas if they want to start and grow families, and into Home Counties seats and the suburban fringe which are currently held by the Tories. The demographic crossover point could easily be pushed above 50 – the point at which it becomes impossible for the Tories to mount a serious electoral challenge.

The party can glide towards 2024 relying on its older voters. It can pander to productivity-sapping, home-ownership-destroying Nimbyism, while taxing workers to increase the incomes of largely comfortable retirees. It may not win, but this will salvage many seats in a bad election without alienating the bedrock of its support. But it’s hard to see how the Conservatives maintain their level of support as that bedrock erodes.

The sorts of people who would vote Tory in their thirties and forties are becoming increasingly rare. Even professionals with decent jobs struggle with house prices that necessitate six-figure incomes for a three-bedroom home around London, not to mention the eyewatering cost of childcare – which are compounded as other aspects of inflation hit. If even the well-off can’t see a reason to fear a Labour government or welcome a Tory one, the party is in free fall.

Without offering some real incentive to vote Tory for the young and moderately comfortable, the party will diminish. “My dad voted Tory,” they’ll say, “and I used to too,” but without the prospect of comfortable home ownership, lower taxes and prosperity, what will the party have to offer? Protected fields and the triple lock aren’t much consolation when you can’t afford a home and have 30 years until retirement.

[See also: A Liz Truss government means the return of the radical right]