Do the Tories know that everyone hates them? This, by some margin, is the political question I get asked most by friends and acquaintances in their twenties and thirties, who otherwise possess no more than a passing interest in politics. After the Autumn Statement on 17 November by Jeremy Hunt, which involved a recommitment to the triple lock and £300 hand-out for pensioners, and only pain for everyone else, this question was coming thick and fast.
So let’s answer it. The short answer is: yes, they do. The long answer is: yes, they do – and no, they are not going to do anything about it.
It would have been hard for Conservative MPs to miss the fact that young people do not want to vote for them. In 2019 57 per cent of people aged 60-69 voted Tory, but only 23 per cent of people aged 25-29. Of course, it is news to nobody that young people vote Labour and older people vote Conservative. What is alarming Conservative MPs is that the tipping point age at which people become more likely to vote Conservative than Labour is going up, and it is going up quickly. Before the 2017 election, research by the Onward think tank found, the tipping point was 34. By 2019 it was 51.
MPs can also tell you why this is. People vote Conservative as they age not because of some innate law, but because ageing has traditionally been associated with the other markers of a Conservative vote: home ownership, a stable job, increased income or capital. It looks like this link is breaking.
“It is getting harder and harder to give a reason to young people when they ask why they should vote Conservative” is the constant refrain I hear from many of the party’s younger MPs. What’s more, MPs are clear in their minds about the reasons young people are not voting for them: a lack of affordable housing and of affordable childcare, as well as, to a lesser extent, student debt which accrues crippling interest and acts like punitively high taxes. The diagnosis of the problem is simple. Finding a solution is proving rather harder.
“There are no quick wins,” one MP told me this week. Reforms that would solve these problems would be need “a big majority and a big degree of confidence”. That, in large part, is the sticking point. Remarkably, despite being in power for twelve years, the Conservative Party has rarely met this description. The story of the Tories in government has been the story of successive unstable administrations who have been shy about making major structural changes, for fear of punishment at the ballot box by their core voters.
Indeed, the punishment often comes before voters even reach the ballot box. This week the Levelling Up Bill returns to the House of Commons. When it does, Tory backbenchers have proposed a set of amendments which will make the government’s housing targets advisory only. Their effect “would be to enshrine nimbyism as the governing principle of British society – to snap the levers that force councils to build, and leave every proposed development at the mercy of the propertied and privileged”, as Robert Colvile put it in the Sunday Times last weekend.
This is indicative of a wider trend. The one consistent factor over successive otherwise inconsistent Conservative governments has been their vulnerability to the whims of small groups of backbenchers, either due to a lack of a majority, or to a majority that nonetheless feels like a lack of majority. Whatever the reform is, there will always be ten or so MPs ready to throw their toys out of the pram, making radical change all but impossible.
This instability has made the Conservatives remarkably short-termist. They do not have the energy left to start worrying about what will happen in 20 years’ time when today’s 20-year-olds still do not want to vote for them, because they are too busy worrying about what happens in two years’ time. Tory MPs often speak enviously of Tony Blair – and the fact that his target for 50 per cent of people to go to university has been met. This is not because they think this policy was good for the country (they do not), but rather because they view it as having contributed to creating a generation of Labour voters: graduates skew Labour, and that effect is still being felt now. In twelve years of government, it is hard to point to a single structural reform of this type that the Conservatives have made which might benefit them in a decade or more. They have been too busy panicking about the next six months. Faced with danger, they have chosen freezing over fight or flight.
This is a government that is scared of its own backbenchers, so cannot risk attempting controversial structural changes. It is scared of its own voters, and so cannot risk betting on new ones rather than desperately scrabbling to shore up its base. It is scared of tomorrow, so cannot risk worrying about what happens in twenty years’ time. Each incremental choice made as a result of this makes sense in the short term. But it is setting the Conservative Party up for something much scarier to come.