Bim Afolami is “in the optimism business”, which is just as well. The 37-year-old Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden has identified a problem the rest of his party has been slow to notice: people of his generation – millennials – really, really don’t like the Tories.
This isn’t news, especially to millennials themselves. The cohort born between the early 1980s and late 1990s are well aware of how hard they’ve been hit during 13 years of Tory rule. In addition to the grievances voters of all ages have against the Conservatives at present (the cost-of-living crisis, the strain on the NHS and public services, the chaos of Brexit, the lack of investment, and years of party infighting and psychodrama), millennials have been hit by some specific challenges. The youngest, in their mid-twenties, are in the midst of a rental crisis and grappling with record student debt after the coalition government tripled university tuition fees to £9,000; the oldest have just reached their forties and face continued financial precarity after a decade of stagnant real wages at exactly the point in life when history would suggest they should be feeling more comfortable. Tory politicians and pundits, while paying lip service to the idea of “aspiration”, have largely ignored this generation in favour of courting pensioners, or have derided them as entitled for complaining about their lot.
But Afolami wanted to find out just bad things were. “I have had a sense for quite a long time that there is a real generational problem,” he tells me when we meet in his office in parliament, noting conversations he’d had with friends his age outside of politics. So he suggested that the centre-right think tank Onward poll them.
The numbers were not good: only 21 per cent of millennials said they would vote Conservative, and 62 per cent said they thought the Tories deserved to lose the next election. Onward’s report, entitled Missing Millennials, noted that: “Their top attributes for the Tories are ‘dishonest’, ‘incompetent’, and ‘out of touch’, whereas they believe the Labour Party ‘stands up for people like me’, [is] ‘relatable’ and ‘has a vision for a country’.”
I point out that none of this should have come as a surprise. It’s been over a decade since the former Conservative cabinet minister David Willetts (whom Afolami calls “an inspiration”) wrote his book The Pinch on “how the baby boomers took their children’s future and why they should give it back”, which charted the rise in intergenerational inequality over recent decades. Since then the trends Willetts identified – the tax burden, the housing crisis, the asset price boom that benefited today’s pensioners – have all been exacerbated. Housing is a particular concern: five years ago research from the Resolution Foundation warned that a third of all millennials might never be able to afford to buy a home; last year Halifax revealed that the average age of a first-time buyer was now over 30 in all parts of country, compared to 26 in 1980. And millennials themselves (me included) have been trying to draw attention to this problem for years. Why didn’t the Conservative Party take note earlier?
“I think we’ve been complacent, to be frank,” Afolami admits, pointing out that the Conservatives’ vote share has gone up in every election since 2010, perhaps masking the extent of the problem. And of course, the received wisdom in politics was always that “people are meant to become more conservative as they age”, as Afolami writes in his foreword to the Missing Millennials report. It is only now, less than 18 months away from a general election with the polls showing the Tories trailing Labour by 15 percentage points, that the Tories are realising the extent to which that received wisdom has become a myth. Is it too late?
This is where Afolami’s optimism comes in. Two things in the otherwise apocalyptic report encouraged him: the fact millennials seemed to like Rishi Sunak a lot more than they liked his party (although even so less than half had a favourable view of him), and the suggestion that, despite the typical portrayal of millennials, they are in fact “shy capitalists”, favouring lower taxes over redistribution.
“They were very focused on their own economic future, and why shouldn’t they be?” Afolami notes. “And if there’s anything Conservatives believe in very strongly, it’s improving people’s economic opportunity.”
The task ahead, then, is clear: improve millennials’ economic prospects and they’ll soon recognise their natural affinity for the Conservative Party and vote accordingly.
[See also: Why the Conservative Party is broken]
On paper Afolami looks like a fairly typical Tory MP. His father was a doctor who moved to the UK from Nigeria; his grandfather was an Anglican vicar. Eleven years behind Boris Johnson, Afolami also studied at Eton and Oxford, where he read history, before becoming a corporate lawyer at a leading City firm. He has shelves full of history books in his office, alongside the kind of weighty political biographies you’d expect. (“Kwasi Kwarteng’s books are excellent, he writes incredibly well, the guy’s like a genuinely good historian,” he insists.) He entered parliament in 2017 at the age of 31, and mostly stayed out of trouble during the years of Tory rebellions.
But when it comes to millennials, he has some truly radical ideas that will come as a shock to many of his colleagues. In the days after the Onward report was published he suggested both lowering millennials’ tax burden by cutting National Insurance for under-40s (paid for by increasing the rate for higher-paid older workers) and a mass centralised housebuilding project on government-owned land.
“We just haven’t got the deal right for younger people,” he says, in justification. “And your job as a government is, when you see something that is not treating a group fairly, it’s to put your hand on the scales in a different direction to try to redress the balance.”
Neither of these things feel particularly aligned with the Tory attitude over the last 13 years, which has tended towards insulating older voters from economic tumult while raising taxes on younger workers and abandoning housebuilding targets by letting nimbys block any local development scheme. Theresa Villiers (age 55), whose constituency of Chipping Barnet is not far from Afolami’s, routinely opposes even brownfield development, and recently warned that building more homes would turn the suburbs into “East Berlin” while seeming utterly unmoved by how the housing shortage is ruining young people’s lives.
“I like Theresa, but what I’d say is there is no point being in politics if the answer to everything is you have to persuade absolutely everyone,” Afolami says smoothly. In other words, it doesn’t put him off that a significant faction of his party is against him on this. He likens building more houses to building more nuclear power stations – there will inevitably be local opposition, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build them!”
“If people can persuade me that actually not building enough houses, not allowing young people to get onto the housing ladder till they’re in their late thirties or early forties, [doesn’t matter], that’s fine,” he says. “But I think it does matter. And if it does matter, we’re going to have to do big things to solve it. And I think the Conservative Party, in our bones, I think we know this.”
He also hopes that his government-led plan could repel the charge that greedy developers are building the wrong kinds of homes in the wrong kinds of places, just because it’s lucrative. He points to how Harold Macmillan (“the most successful housing secretary we’ve ever had”) built hundreds of thousands of homes, including vast amounts of social housing, on government-owned land, working with local councils to incentivise building. “It’s just not an answer any more to pretend that we live in a fully functioning private market when it comes to houses. Because we don’t.”
As for tax, his plan to cut National Insurance for young people is a non-starter (imagine the Telegraph headlines if older people saw their tax rates go up for the sake of their children). But Afolami points out that there’s already “an inbuilt unfairness in National Insurance, because at 66 you stop paying even if you’re working”. And while he doesn’t support wealth taxes of the kind normally proposed by the left, he’s long been an advocate of “land value capture”, whereby some of the additional value land accrues as soon as planning permission is granted is taxed. “That is something done by a bureaucrat’s pen, that is nothing to do with you… The community needs to capture some of the completely unearned wealth, by already wealthy people because they are selling acres of land, to pay for infrastructure that everybody needs.”
The problem, of course, is that there’s little hope of any of these radical reforms being passed by a Conservative parliament, let alone implemented in time to make a difference at the next election. Even someone as optimistic as him must admit the scale of the challenge, and the high likelihood of electoral oblivion.
But perhaps Onward’s report will create enough panic to convince Rishi Sunak that some kind of offer to millennials is crucial if the Conservatives are to have any chance at all. At the very least, perhaps they could build a few houses. Perhaps in Chipping Barnet.