Back in 2010, the Conservatives won slightly more of the 18-34 year old vote than Labour did.
In 2015, when the Tories won a majority for the first time in 20 years, they won 27 per cent of 18-24 year olds to Labour’s 43 per cent, and 33 per cent of 25-34 year olds to Labour’s 36 per cent. In June this year, the Tories won 27 per cent of 18-24 year olds to Labour’s 62 per cent, and 27 per cent of 25-34 year olds to Labour’s 56 per cent. Had that margin been closer to 2015, the Tories would have a majority today.
This trend looks very bad for the Conservative party. But it also shows that the Tories are not doomed to lose younger voters. Not so long ago, the Economist pointed out that this generation was more sceptical of welfare and government borrowing than any other, and the most entrepreneurial of any large country in Europe.
In Germany, Angela Merkel is polling even better with younger voters than with the population as a whole. The idea that young people are inveterate socialists just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
What went wrong was that the Tories abandoned these voters in tone and policy. Their manifesto had almost nothing that would improve the lives of young people directly. Take housing, for instance. Back in 1996, 56 per cent of under-35s owned their own home. Today it’s 36 per cent, with the rest either living at home or renting.
But there was essentially nothing in the Tory manifesto to change this or to make life easier for renters. In contrast, Labour had detailed, albeit potentially disastrous, proposals about rent controls, lettings agency fees and tenancy agreements. Similarly, the Tories did not mention tuition fees once. Labour’s fees freebie would not have benefited the vast majority of young voters who already had debt – but it showed that they were aware of the problems young people face.
To add to this, bizarre decisions like bringing back fox hunting and softening the ban on ivory trading, which became huge issues on social media, and attacks on globally-minded Brits as “citizens of nowhere” made the Tories sound nasty and a world away from the concerns of many younger voters.
If the Tories are going to avoid another repeat of 2017’s election debacle they need to change tone and adopt policies that offer something to young people, so that young people will actually listen to it.
Yesterday the Adam Smith Institute suggested 12 policies that could form the basis of a deal for younger voters. Housing is key, of course, and it’s not just about building new housing but about creating legal vehicles for longer tenancies of three to five years that will allow stability for both tenants and landlords.
Most politicians do not seem to realise just how desperate the housing market feels for younger people, especially in places like London. Rents are extremely high and have been for decades – something that doesn’t just raise the cost of living, but prevents many people from moving to where the best jobs are, while holding back their own life prospects and the country’s economy overall.
Fixing this, by allowing denser developments, making planning permits more easily transferrable, and giving local councils stronger incentives to allow new developments, would get us some way closer to the 1m new homes that London needs to approach the affordability of its European counterparts.
Tax cuts might be relatively cheap ways of boosting younger people’s earnings. Raising the Air Passenger Duty exemption to 30, at least for short-haul flights, and cutting the National Insurance rate for under-30s would not unduly distort the system, but would be felt by younger voters. Reforming tuition fees to claw back loans more aggressively in exchange for a lower interest rate and exploring the potential for more intensive two year courses to lower maintenance costs could both lower the burden of debt on younger graduates.
The government needs to make Brexit feel less isolationist, and leave the anti-globalist rhetoric behind. Ditch the attacks on “citizens of the world”, keep free movement (or something like it) with the EU, and try to secure free movement deals for under-30s with other English-speaking countries like Canada, Australia and the United States. One of the reasons for Merkel’s popularity with younger voters is her bold and compassionate stance towards Syrian refugees. Can you imagine today’s Conservative Party doing anything remotely similar?
Writing young voters off as natural socialists just won’t do. It’s a losing strategy and it doesn’t fit the facts. Most younger voters just want the same consideration as older ones. Corbyn took young voters seriously and they rewarded him. The Conservatives need to do the same.