The myth of dormant young Conservatives

Rather than engage the young, organisations such as Onward comfort the old with optimistic notions of a Tory revival. 

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On 9 April, cabinet ministers Matt Hancock, Penny Mordaunt and Michael Gove gathered to launch Generation Why?, a report from the Conservative think tank Onward. Since the 2017 general election, it revealed, the median age at which a voter is more likely to support the Conservatives than Labour has risen by four years, from 47 to 51. Eighty-three per cent of Tory voters are now over 45.

But the right has cause for hope. Onward embodies the disconnected optimism of Emmanuel Macron (its moniker resembles that of the French president’s En Marche!). As its founder Will Tanner put it: “three million voters under the age of 35 ... would consider voting Conservative”. The research, cabinet minister Liz Truss wrote, shows that “far from being commune-dwelling Corbynistas”, young people hold “Conservative values” – including low taxation, “fairness”, and public service reform.

The British electorate has never been more polarised by age. Data from Election Maps UK shows that, were only over-65s allowed to vote, the Conservatives would win 51.3 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 18 per cent. Of those polled for Generation Why?, 62 per cent of 18-24 year olds said they would vote Labour if there was a general election today. Yet, according to Onward, millions of these young people would consider voting Conservative if the “the policies and values were right”.

The political scientist Giovanni Sartori might have termed this “concept stretching” – for what is a party, if not its values and policies? Despite their expressed support for Labour, the younger generation is “waiting for us to reach out”, Conservative MPs Neil O’Brien and Rachel Maclean consoled in Times op-ed; they are not the “righteous virtue-signallers of ‘woke Twitter’ espousing punitive taxes, exorbitant public spending and open borders”; rather, “the younger you get, the more you favour low taxes”. Their audience, you sense, was not the under-35s.

Parsing the meaning of modern conservatism is a challenge – the term is oxymoronic to begin with. Philosopher Michael Oakeshott defined conservatives as those who preferred “the familiar to the unknown, the tried to the untried, fact to mystery”. He wrote that this appeals more to the old than to the young, a conceit that captures Onward’s problem. Conservatives have long defined themselves against “ideology”; Winston Churchill dismissed “socialist ministers… so much wrapped up in their doctrines”, and David Cameron, one of the last Conservative modernisers, promised his party would govern “not by ideology” – an ironic position, given his ideological embrace of austerity. As left-wing ideas win a following among the young, modern Conservatives are casting around for an alternative proposition.

Onward is one of many Tory initiatives pursuing the youth vote. Grassroots social media movement Activate was established in 2017 in an attempt to emulate the success of Momentum after Conservative politicians decided they, too, would like a grassroots network. But they lacked the organic formation to which “grassroots” pertains and the language that social media demands. (Their twitter account was ridiculed for hashtags such as “#retweet” and “#meme”.) Activate was hacked so many times that it was no longer clear which was the real account, and it is now largely inactive.

In February, Turning Point, a right-wing US pressure group targeting millennials, launched a UK chapter. The “movement” stands for free markets and small government, and is for those who are “sick of snowflakes spouting nonsense” and “let down by the left-wing bias” of UK universities. It aims is to energise a UK movement of young libertarians, but, as journalist Ash Sarkar noted in a video for left-wing media organisation Novara Media, Facebook adverts at the time of its launch were targeted at audiences in Texas, Ohio and California – with ads targeting over-45s, rather than under-24s.

The group’s purpose may instead be to console anxious 50-somethings and strengthen the notion that a right-wing millennial counterculture is entering the mainstream of university politics – something that the Generation Why? report, which charts increased hostility to the Conservatives among graduates, indirectly refutes. Rather than engage the young, Turning Point – like Onward – comforts the old, perpetuating the fiction of a dormant Conservative youth.

Freer, a youth-focused offshoot of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Refresh, a comment platform for young people set up by the Telegraph, both court a youthful audience with reheated free-market ideas. Freer retweets Ronald Reagan and Isaiah Berlin quotes, while Refresh zealously embraces market deregulation. “Every generation wants their own version of freedom fighters”, Liz Truss, who is famed for her liberal use of Instagram, once remarked. Truss told the Spectator that she hopes a liberty-loving generation of digital upstarts that have “access to new things they can buy, 24 hours a day”, might be persuaded to vote Tory. This generation is “Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating”, she once tweeted – and is seemingly willing to trade worker protections for deregulated markets.

Common to these initiatives is the notion that an organic movement of young Conservatives, comfortable with the economic consensus, is flowering at the margins and waiting to be unleashed. “People say younger voters are all left wing”; “that growing up during the financial crisis turned us off capitalism”; “that becoming politically conscious under austerity put us off living within our means”, an Onward video narrates.

A control+F search of Generation Why? reveals that the words “austerity” and “debt” do not feature once in the report. Mantras of economic growth instead of redistribution, deregulation instead of worker protection, and austerity instead of public spending betray the lethargy of an establishment that is unused to losing – and doesn’t know how to respond. Far easier, perhaps, to believe in the fiction of a generation of dormant Conservatives, than address what led the young away.

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor.