The Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority in June for a number of reasons, but one was that they did very badly indeed among young voters. If they want to get back even their small majority, let alone start achieving the kind of Commons majorities they need to drive through controversial policies, they need to do better.
The first step in doing better is to acknowledge why you are currently doing badly, and there are some Conservatives offering interesting things in this space. Nick Boles is one, Sajid Javid another, Nicky Morgan a third, and George Freeman a fourth.
But the bad news is that their voices are getting drowned out by an engagingly stupid idea that has started to take root in Tory circles, and shows signs of becoming dangerously mainstream: that the reason the Tory party lost seats in 2017 was because not enough young people have learned about the evils of Communism.
Patient zero appears to be the polemicist James Bartholomew, who first called for a British museum of Communist atrocities in the Spectator in March 2016. He made the call again in the Telegraph after the election.
This ought to be obvious, but one thing that any regular visitor to a museum will tell you is that they tend to major in one of two areas: things that a country has done in its past, or things that a country has purloined from another one it has conquered.
The United Kingdom doesn’t have a museum of Communism because it has never had a Communist government, nor has it conquered a country that has had one. (Or, at least, the countries it has conquered with Communist governments have acquired them after the British left the scene.)
This may be one reason why the British museum of Communist terror doesn’t seem to have anything as useful as a curator, a building or any exhibits, but it does have a Twitter account: @CommunistTerror. I first came across it when it tweeted a graphic revealing that 70 per cent of “young people” have never heard of Mao. (The Communist dictator, not the band.)
In a development that was more significant for what it said about the tolerance of the Conservative Party for bad ideas than it seemed at the time, Therese Coffey, widely and in my view correctly seen both by MPs and civil servants as one of the most able and level-headed ministers in the government, retweeted it.
This poll seems to have taken on a life of its own on the right. The political editor of the Backbencher, James Bickerton, tweeted further findings from it: not only have “young people” not heard of Mao, they have not heard of the Cambodian autocrat Pol Pot or Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. He made the link that @CommunistTerror had only made implicit, explicit: that this ignorance directly explained why so many “young people” were willing to back a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. That tweet was widely shared by Conservative MPs and activists: it came into my timeline when Esther McVey – who as an MP for a marginal seat for five years presumably has come into contact with at least some Labour voters – retweeted it.
The website Unherd, the latest project from the founder of ConservativeHome Tim Montgomerie, has taken up the call for a museum of Communism and has run with the idea that the young simply don’t know enough about what happened at the Prague Uprising.
In a further alarming sign for the state of the Conservative Party, Michael Gove, who as Environment Secretary has pushed through an animal-rights agenda that actually addresses some of the real reasons that people didn’t vote Conservative in sufficient numbers in 2017, shared one such article approvingly. Amber Rudd, the great hope of Conservative modernisers, told listeners at a Centre for Policy Studies event that Labour voters had backed “the economics of Chavez” over sound principles.
The “people vote Labour because they don’t know how beastly Stalin was to the Kulaks” meme has a couple of holes in it. The first seems to be mathematical: when pollsters, academics and political strategists say that the Conservatives did badly among “young people”, they mean everyone under median age – that is to say, everyone aged 39 and under.
But Conservative thinkers seem to be under the impression that the term applies only to 18 to 24-year-olds. The Tories did exceptionally badly among this group but if you look back, with the exception of 1983, that has pretty much always been the case. They turned out in their greatest numbers since the 2010 election, the last time that a politician was pledging to abolish tuition fees in their entirety.
(I’m not suggesting this was the only reason 18 to 24-year-olds backed Corbyn, people are complex. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that the argument – both when advanced by triumphant Labour supporters or despondent Conservatives – that the surge in youth support was an endorsement of redistributive politics in the round from that group, doesn’t have a firm grounding in what actually happened at the election.)
The Tories’ big electoral problem was that voters aged 30 to 40 who voted for them two years ago switched to Labour in a big way. (In fact, the problem extended past voters who can be considered “young” as far as British demographics go: among people still in work, Labour won voters up to the age of 55.)
In case the inference is not obvious: people aged 27 and under when the Berlin Wall fell were more likely to vote Labour than Conservative in June. And the people who cast their first vote in the election of 1987 were also more likely to vote Labour than Conservative. The Conservative problem clearly isn’t one confined to those with no memory or understanding of Communism.
Another inconvenient truth is that this poll finding that has so exercised Conservatives actually contains a wealth of other results that pour further doubt on the idea that the Tory problem is that too few youngsters know what Uncle Joe did to the Kulaks. Not least because 72 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds have heard of Stalin and 61 per cent associate him with crimes against humanity. (It’s also worth noting before starting to hyperventilate that the 11 per cent who have heard of Stalin and do not associate him with crimes against humanity are all unrepentant Stalinists, that 10 per cent of all British 18 to 24s did not associate FW De Klerk, the last president of apartheid South Africa, with crimes against humanity. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that one in ten of the under-24s are not into apartheid.)
Given that 18-24s are familiar with one totalitarian Communist and agree that he was, in fact, responsible for crimes against humanity, it seems unlikely, to put it mildly, that there is some tipping point when 18 to 24-year-olds are turned off Labour’s 2017 manifesto. There may be some imagined voter living in the mind of Montgomerie, Bartholemew or Bickerton who hears about one Communist dictator and likes Jeremy Corbyn, hears about a second and is neutral to him, but learns of a third and decides to vote Conservative, but there is no evidence that this person actually exists in the real world.
What there is considerable evidence of is that the average under-40 is actually less sympathetic towards nationalisation, redistribution or left-wing policies in general than the old. What separates them from the Conservative-voting over-55s is that they are a) more socially liberal than older voters, b) they dislike Brexit both as an assault on their cultural values and because they fear it will make them poorer, and c) they can’t get on the housing ladder.
None of the solutions to these problems are easy for the Conservative Party. They are a lot less comforting than telling themselves that their problem is just that young voters are too dumb and too pro-Communist to be won back. Nonetheless, that is the real-world problem the Tory party faces. And the troubling thing for their electoral hopes in the future is not the fringe that believes that 18 to 24-year-olds just need to be told who Mao Zedong was. It’s the more sensible part of the party that indulges them.