Tories are selling their future for short-term salvation
“I just don’t know what our offer is to the under-45s,” sighs a former Conservative minister. Another channels the former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker: “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it.” The conflicting demands of reconnecting with a cohort they are losing and holding on to the voters they have has left them attached to a demographic detonator that everyone wants someone else to defuse.
The age at which people are more likely to vote Conservative than Labour is getting dangerously high for the party. In 2017 it was 47. Boris Johnson and the flight from Jeremy Corbyn cut it back to 39 in 2019 but it has been rising steadily as the party’s overall poll ratings fall.
Once Conservatives could rely on financial determinism. As people bought homes and started families their interests increasingly aligned with the Tories. Now there is economic stagnation. Too many younger families in the south can’t afford a home, are buying far later or moving away from their roots. Decent jobs no longer offer the lifestyle their parents enjoyed. The first generation to pay £9,000 a year for university tuition fees is now approaching its thirties.
The economic offer has deteriorated as the cultural divide widens. Brexit alienated younger voters while the tone of government has often been overtly hostile to graduates, an interesting political strategy towards a group that has grown from 30 to 45 per cent of the adult workforce since 2004.
Above all this, however, Conservatives appear in their policy choices to be prioritising the concerns of older and more affluent voters over those who seek their turn at the table.
A defining moment in the tussle to attract younger families came last week with the watering down of planning reforms designed to force more house building, especially in the south. The government surrendered to the Nimbyism (and the parliamentary arithmetic) of MPs from affluent southern seats.
Lack of affordable housing also feeds into the recruitment crisis in key public services. For all the promises of housebuilding, the signal is that Tory MPs have put the haves over the want-to-haves, the asset rich over the asset poor, older voters over those in their thirties.
Simon Clarke, former cabinet minister and patron of a new group, Next Generation Conservatives, laments the shortsightedness of the southern rebels, noting a “nurse or teacher in the north-east can have a four-bedroom house. That’s not true in London or the south.”
He identifies three areas for improvement. None are surprising: housebuilding, the cost of childcare and easing the tax-burden on ordinary workers. But another well-regarded MP sees a larger issue. “This is not just about the retail offer. We can all design a manifesto but it would not have the vision. The larger economic question is, who is our society functioning for?”
The deeper issue, especially in a time of tight finances and falling polls, is that the Tories have decided to place their bets on their current older voters. This means spending on pensioners, refusing to switch some of the burden of taxation from income to assets that have appreciated in value under quantitative easing, or facilitating the dream of home ownership. Only in the unmet desire to cut income taxes are Tories on the same page as those they need to attract.
In addition, the party is losing the broader philosophical argument about the role of the state by failing to link economic opportunity and personal advancement to freedom of choice.
Childcare offers an illustrative case. Tories are drawn to deregulation, wanting to cut high UK childcare ratios as a way to reduce costs. But a bigger debate, beyond the cost of living issue, is over how to support parents and offer families more freedom of choice, either to work or to take time off.
While the Labour offer is built around state support for working parents, mostly mothers, the Tory approach might offer them choice by making existing financial support more flexible or through tax allowances.
A change of tone is also needed. The Tories will not abandon Brexit, nor are they wrong to reprioritise vocational and skills training. But sneering at graduates and Remainers as some kind of enemy within is self-defeating when anyone now under 45 was far more likely to have voted to stay than leave. Nor is there any political advantage in resiling from a net zero agenda widely shared by all the rising generations.
Politics is a battle of priorities. The Conservatives look like a party backing the outgoing generations. And above all there is the small matter of delivering economic growth. Having rejected the values of younger voters, especially after Brexit, Tories cannot afford to also fail to offer the prospect of prosperity.
Facing a daunting election, Tories dare not abandon their elderly asset-rich supporters but their future demands different political choices focused on working-age votes. They are also the right choices. And failing to make them is leaving the political field to opponents who will frame the issue as one of state support, be it social housing or more state spending on childcare.
Conservatives need to show in their language and choices they will prioritise (or at least give equal weight to) the working over the retired, the asset seekers over the asset holders and the current generation of strivers over the last one. A party of aspiration must look as if it offers something to those who aspire.