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30 May 2023

Why is anyone surprised that millennials aren’t turning Tory?

From housing to childcare, 13 years of disregard for a generation won’t be easy to reverse.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Young people are so sneaky. You take your eye off them for one moment as they’re posting to social media on their snazzy smartphones while sipping an overpriced latte that they’ve foolishly bought instead of saving for a house, and the next minute they’re all grown up and ruining your electoral chances.

Yes, the millennials have got older. Who knew. Answer: anyone who understands that “millennial” means someone born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, as opposed to being shorthand for “silly person younger than me who has views I don’t like”, as it is often used. Depending on precisely where you draw your age brackets, the youngest millennials are now in their mid-20s, while the oldest are over 40.

Watch: Andrew Marr explains why Conservatives should fear disenfranchised millennials

By that age, you might expect people to have got over their childish left-wing naivety when it comes to politics. As the oft-quoted but probably apocryphal Churchill line goes: “Any man who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age 40 has no head.”

Or, to put it another way: “People are meant to become more conservative as they age. Youthful idealism should gradually morph into hard-headed practical concerns for the economy, tax rates, building a family and being a more integral part of a community – all things that create a more conservative mindset. That, in turn, leads into gradually increasing support for the Conservative Party as we all pass life’s milestones.” Thus writes the Tory MP Bim Afolami in the introduction to a new report from the centre-right think tank Onward, released this week, entitled “Missing Millennials: Why the Conservatives lost a generation, and how to win them back”.

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The problem for Afolami – and for the Tories in general – is that this equation no longer holds up. The millennials are getting older all right, but they’re not getting more right-wing. In fact, this cohort supports Labour over the Tories by two to one, while 62 per cent think “the Conservative Party deserves to lose the next election” and only 21 per cent say they would vote them. The report reminds us that they represent “26 per cent of the adult population and are already the largest age cohort in 51 per cent of constituencies, or 324 seats”. That’s a pretty bleak picture. If the Conservatives want to have hope of avoiding electoral annihilation in a year or so, or indeed surviving at all, they urgently need to work out how to win these voters back.

To which the response is: duh. I mean, didn’t we already know all of this? Haven’t we been talking about it for nearly a decade? How are the Tories just realising now that young people – that is, people under the age of about 40 – feel they have been utterly failed by the past 13 years of Conservative government? Are they only just noticing all the ways in which this cohort has been screwed over, while being told by their elders at every turn that it’s their own fault they can’t get ahead because they’ve been spending all their money on avocado toast and worrying about pronouns?

[See also: Could millennials become Conservative voters after all?]

This is not in any way to disparage Onward. This report, based on a “mega-sample poll” of 8,000 people, is pretty much the first big research project we’ve seen on these themes. It’s both wide-ranging and wonderfully detailed, with some fascinating and unexpected insights. It’s really interesting, for example, how much millennials seem to like Rishi Sunak (for voters in their 30s, the PM is 25 percentage points more popular than his party). Maybe it’s because, at 43, he’s almost a millennial himself. And the section on how core economic policy areas (tax, housing) take precedence over issues of social justice should serve as a warning to any party hoping to make the next election all about the culture war.

But again, why hasn’t a right-wing think tank (or government department, come to think of it) looked at all this before? It’s been five years – the length of a parliamentary term – since the Resolution Foundation warned that a third of millennials might never be able to buy a home. Since then, we’ve learned that the average age of a first-time homebuyer is now over 30 in every part of the country, that house prices are at their most unaffordable in 147 years, and that the average age of a private renter is 41. Those of us who have been paying attention don’t need a poll to tell us that millennials consider housing one of the top five issues currently facing Britain. It’s obvious.

Nor is it unexpected that this group ranks childcare and parental leave higher than any other generation. You try raising a child on one income or paying the equivalent of a second mortgage on nursery fees when aforementioned housing costs are so high. The panic over the falling birth rate and idea that young people just don’t want children fails to take into account how financially impossible having children in this country actually is. (Those handwringing at the recent National Conservatism Conference about how few babies today’s young Brits are having might want to take note.)

Similarly, the finding that they favour lower taxes isn’t the shock the report makes it out to be. Student debt doesn’t get much of mention, but with post-2012 graduates today (anyone under 30 who went to university) paying a marginal tax rate of 41 per cent if they dare to earn over £27,295, and 51 per cent for those earning above £50,270, it’s no wonder they feel squeezed. A quick glance shows how our tax system is overwhelmingly skewed towards insulating the old (triple-locked pensions, a host of old-age benefits, no appetite to tax housing gains to fund the rocketing costs of social care) at the expense of the young, who frequently get asked to pay just a little bit more to support the wealthiest age cohort in our society.

And that’s before we even look at the government’s refusal – whether a result of rampant nimbyism or the “Treasury-brain” aversion to spending money – to invest in infrastructure (railways, development, green power) or skills training that might help future generations. Is it really surprising that millennials don’t necessarily trust a Conservative government that has imposed the highest tax burden in post-war history with their money and would rather keep more of it in their pockets? Or that according to Onward they see the party as “dishonest”, “incompetent” and “out-of-touch”?

This is being presented as news but it really isn’t. People have been trying for years to talk about the hammering this cohort has taken since the financial crisis and the refusal of successive Tory governments to acknowledge or care about them. Some of us have also spent quite a lot of time pointing out that young people don’t stay young forever, and a party that has so utterly betrayed a generation can’t expect that generation to magically get amnesia and decide to change their voting habits just because they hit 40. Now that Onward has raised the alarm, perhaps those in the party will realise just how dire the situation is, but it may well be too late: 13 years of indifference and mismanagement is hard to reverse.

All I’m saying is, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

[See also: What do the Tories have to show for 13 years in office?]

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