Voters move right with age – this was once regarded as an iron law of politics. The Conservative electorate would be continually replenished by the simple passage of time.
Yet this supposed rule – like so many others in recent years – has now been broken. As Andrew Marr notes on page 24, millennials (those aged 27-41) and even older voters have retained their anti-Conservative bias. Age has replaced class as the defining divide.
At the last general election, adults did not become more likely to vote Tory than Labour until they reached 39 (at the 2017 election the tipping point was a remarkable 47). This was not always the case. At the 1983 general election, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives led Labour by 11 points among 25- to 34-year-olds with a vote share of 40 per cent.
But now, as a study by the conservative think tank Onward has revealed, only 21 per cent of millennials would vote Conservative, while 62 per cent say the party “deserves to lose the next election”. How did the Tories become so repellent to this demographic?
The short-term explanation is Brexit. Before 2016 the age divide between Labour and the Conservatives was notable but not overwhelming. Under the pro-Remain David Cameron, the Tories trailed by just three points among 25- to 34-year-olds. After the Leave vote, however, those aged below 40 swung dramatically against the Conservatives. “My generation betrayed the young generation,” Michael Heseltine, the former Tory cabinet minister, declared – and many agreed with him.
Yet there are longer-term trends at work as well. The Conservatives, like the US Republicans, are struggling to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. The average age of a first-time home buyer is now 34, and far higher for those without family assistance.
Those who cannot afford to buy have been forced into the under-regulated private rental market, where surging housing costs make it even harder to save for a typical deposit (around £62,000). Outside London, the average rent now stands at a record high of £1,190, while inside the capital it has reached £2,500.
Working-age people are being forced to pay extortionate housing costs from wages that, in some cases, are no higher in real terms than in 2008. In these circumstances, it shouldn’t be surprising that they do not feel inclined to reward the governing party.
University graduates are further squeezed by tuition fee and student loan repayments. Those earning £27,295 pay an effective marginal tax rate of 41 per cent until they have cleared debts that now average £45,800.
As a result of millennial disenchantment, the Conservatives have become ever more reliant on older voters. Indeed, at the 2019 general election, Labour led among working-age voters (18- to 64-year-olds) by three points.
Such electoral shifts have distorted the Tories’ political priorities. Rather than building affordable homes for first-time buyers, they are more concerned with propping up house prices for the old (around half of Conservative voters are owner-occupiers). They have protected the triple lock on the state pension and other pensioner benefits while cutting child benefit and tax credits – socialism for the old and capitalism for the young.
It would be politically as well as morally reckless for the Tories to continue to disregard millennials. The characterisation of this generation as Corbynite socialists is far from accurate. Onward’s study found that Rishi Sunak is 25 points more popular than the Conservative Party among voters in their thirties. It noted that millennials lie to the right of average voters on economic issues such as taxation and redistribution, and describes them as “shy capitalists”.
Yet where is the Conservative capable of appealing to this generation? Liz Truss, who hailed millennials as “Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”, thought she could, but her escapades only further alienated them. Boris Johnson, whose popularity among the younger voters helped him win two terms as mayor of London, chose Brexit instead. The heterodox conservatives, such as Rory Stewart, now lie outside the party.
Perhaps only an emphatic defeat to Labour at the next election will force the Conservatives to defuse the demographic timebomb they face. The danger is that by the time they do it will already be too late.
This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation