Young People and a Party for the Future
Young voters are the embodiment of the future. Not just the future of the Conservative Party, but the business leaders, politicians, and ‘bigwigs’ of tomorrow. They are the crux on which political parties rest on for their seats, their engagement with wider society, and their general livelihood as political entities. Indeed, they will be shaping the future as the political sphere crowds around them to hear what they have to say, and to offer something in return.
Consequently, they hunger for a vigour that is reflected in the political parties of the day. The vigour that comes from being young. It is a pressure from below on political parties to be dynamic, engaging, and diverse. And it is, unfortunately, where the Conservative Party falls down.
How have the Conservatives attempted, if one can use such a word, to engage young voters, in the past few years? This requires a look down the line of the Party conferences. In 2017, it was Theresa May, the current Prime Minister, front and centre on stage. She announced, boldly, that tuition fees would be frozen. Ears pricked up at the prospect that the Tories were finally listening to the concerns of young voters. Eric Pickles, MP for Brentwood and Ongar, followed suit with a call for a ‘vibrant youth wing’ as part of his analysis of the 2017 snap election. The conference, in Manchester, was met with muted approval.
At the end of the Conference of 2017, Conservative Future (a very successful youth group of the past, founded in 1998), the former deputy chair of which, Stephen Canning, voiced their opinion that there was a clear attention being paid to younger members, but there was still a lack of trust between the main Party and the youth. It is clear that, from the success of Conservative Future, that there is a yearning out there from the youth to be engaged with, and so it is the Party that is deliberately severing the link in the chain.
More promising advice came from Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and a favourite amongst the Scottish youth. “I think one of the things that we [must] do is we speak to young people of voting age … not as if they are separate species”, she said at the end of the 2017 Conference. “Our social media policy is not good enough, our provision in terms of how we broadcast what we are trying to say, isn’t good enough. And speaking just within the traditional media isn’t going to help that.” Valuable ammunition from a prodigy in youth engagement.
Conference 2018 brought little improvement. Brandon Lewis, the Party chairman, correctly identified the speed at which the UK was changing, and that the Conservatives were at risk of being left behind. There was much tooting of the Party’s own horn, with such social progress under their tenure as equal marriage rights for homosexual and lesbian couples, and reforming of stop-and-search tactics, “a proud record” in Lewis’ own words. Yet even Lewis admitted the extent of the problem, that the Party “hasn’t done enough to change the perception some people have of our Party today”.
Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough elected in 2017, gave his opinion to the Guardian. It was noted by O’Brien that there was a massive deficit between the Tories and Labour in engagement with younger voters, and particularly those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. The statistical analysis revealed that the Conservative Party were two percentage points behind Labour for voters in their 20s, and four percentage points for those 18-24 in 2015. By 2017 this had shot up to 26 and 40 points behind, respectively. O’Brien was also a former director of Policy Exchange, a key thinktank working with youth engagement, and made the comment that structural changes in society left the Conservative Party’s social policy “like a beam that is rotting away, and eventually it snaps”.
A hard-hitting doom and gloom opinion was also provided to the Guardian by George Freeman, former chairman to Theresa May’s policy unit, and MP for Mid Norfolk. “It isn’t just about can’t we get more new people in the Conservative Party, it is the dividing line in politics. And I think we’re on the wrong side of it. It’s not too late to get on the right side of it, but it just won’t happen.”
The 2018 Conference represented the direness of the situation at hand. The Conservative Party is simply not engaging young people. It is time, therefore, for the Conservative youth to take matters into their own hands, and to devise a strategy that the main Party cannot hope to ignore.
It must begin with a refocus. It is quite clear that the Labour Party are in the driving seat of the youth, but this need not be the case. What the Conservative Party needs to do is to create an amalgam of policies which escort young voters through their life.
The housing market is a key area to look at. To understand what capitalism means, young people need access to capital; if only rented capital. Let the Conservative party become the party of the proud, independent young person. From access to affordable housing comes a desire to work towards an attainable goal. If students feel that they can achieve something tangible, they will do so. The current generation of young voters is not a lazy generation, it is a generation adrift: a generation that needs a focus.
Job stability is an incredibly attractive prospect to young voters in and out of university. Facilitating the job market for young people is an excellent source of structure for a generation that is otherwise adrift in the world. The Conservative Party’s strong support for the gig economy and zero hour contracts has helped immensely in encouraging entrepreneurship amongst young students. But it can’t stop there. Young voters getting involved in such a market need to feel that their employment is going somewhere, a sense of progression is very important. ‘Generation Z’ makes up a quarter of the British population. That translates to a quarter of the future workforce. The time to act, therefore, is now.
As a greater proportion of young voters attend university, it is an promising chance for a great platform of open debate to grow, and for conservative ideas to be cemented and reinforced. Free speech is a must: the freedom to be criticised is not something to shy away from, but an intellectual hurdle that a well-armed young voter should have no trouble overcoming.
There is no greater chance for radical reform than Brexit. On account of my age, I was not eligible to vote in the referendum. But I am a categorical leave voter. For the simplest reason, too; there is nothing more attractive to the ambitious young voter than the freedom to make your own future. For far too long, we were dependent on a Europeanising institution while simultaneously expecting that young voters were meant to grow up as independent entrepreneurs. It was the wrong environment for UK political parties to engage young voters in. Now, with control of law-making capability in the hands of the British government, initiatives can be tailor-made to engage young people in a creative work ethic of building Britain’s global future.
Politics is about seizing the moment. It is often centred not around campaigns, but around response to events. Brexit is one of them, but elections is another. Young voters often catch glimpses and excerpts of election footage, but apathy and willingness to not engage is triumphing. This comes, in my view, from a lack of sincerity in today’s political landscape. The youth movements of yesteryear gave young voters a chance to get involved at a national, but more importantly, a local level.
The Conservative Party, weighed down by stigma as the party of the middle class business executive, must be willing to make its politics more engageable. Leaders must be more than faces on a screen; they must be seen out in the world at large, but sincerely so. A leader who engages young voters does so not because they have to be seen doing so, but because they want to do so.
In summary, engaging the young voter is a mammoth task. The key maxim is to be sincere, be succinct, and be spontaneous. The Party need only catch the eye of the younger generation and let a strong base of principles do the rest. There is a clamour for a party that represents individuality, entrepreneurship, and business-minded career progression options. The stagnant dystopia that the Labour Party offers is cemented poorly at the cracks with promises they cannot hope to live up to. It is the Conservatives who can win the day, with sincerity, with succinctness, and with spontaneity.
It begins from below. The think tanks. The organisations bringing everyone together. In order to be a success, it is in the interest of all organisations that seek to engage young people to emulate the above strategies, and to avoid the pitfalls that the main Conservative Party has mired itself in for far too long. Then, and only then, can a solid example be created for those above to emulate, and the Conservatives triumph once again as the party of the young.