The Conservatives' Millennial Problem Could Cost Them The Next Election
Conservatives are polling behind Labour among young people (Alamy)
Younger adults are almost universally turning away from the Conservatives after the party has spent more than a decade in Downing Street.
“They just don’t identify with us anymore,” one young Conservative councillor said of his own peer group’s relationship with the Tories. That’s despite having a millennial Prime Minister with a penchant for designer hoodies and the latest tech. At 42, Rishi Sunak sits on the cusp of the digitally native generation that includes those born between 1980 and 1996.
Labour is consistently enjoying poll leads of 20 points or more over the Conservatives, benefitting from the public’s negative reaction to a succession of scandals while Boris Johnson was prime minister, economic disaster under Liz Truss, and the overall instability that led to Sunak’s appointment in September. The demographic that has been most likely to turn on the Tories is those of working age.
Only 2 per cent of people aged 18-24, and 15 per cent of 25-49-year olds say they intend to vote Conservative at the next general election – due to be called before the end of 2024 – according to polling by YouGov for The Times earlier this month. That compares to 59 per cent and 60 per cent respectively among the same groups who say they will vote Labour.
The only age group among whom the party retains a solid lead is the over 65s, where 37 per cent say they intend to vote Conservative compared to 30 per cent favouring Labour.
A pollster for YouGov told PoliticsHome data suggests that age has become one of the biggest ideological divides in recent years, particularly on the Brexit vote and elections in 2017 and 2019, but believes that poor economic conditions are now causing a shift across a wider demographic.
“The Tory government is struggling in all ages, but especially in younger groups,” Lukas Paleckis explained.
“While the Conservatives have already lost many young voters, I don’t think the current economic situation has done anything to benefit them or win them back.”
A 20-something Conservative councillor in the south east of England believes the party needs to work hard to win back youth support that grew under the modernising force of David Cameron, who was 39 when he became Tory leader, in the lead-up to the 2010 and 2015 elections.
“If you look back to 2010, we had the momentum with the under 40s,” they said.
“So you have to look back and think, what’s happened in the last almost 13 years?”
They believed the party’s shift to the right in response to the Brexit referendum in 2016 was a key factor in alienating younger voters, particularly in the South of England.
“Young professionals from London who would have voted Tory now find themselves politically homeless or leaning towards the Lib Dems or Labour,” they continued.
“The same in suburban areas, people who have got young families, they find themselves turning away from the Tories because they just don’t identify with us anymore.”
The young councillor is one of many who believe the shortage of affordable housing across England, especially in the south, is at the heart of younger people’s resistance to voting Conservative. When Cameron was elected to the coalition government in 2010 the average price of a house in the UK was just under £175,000. It is now just over £290,000. Wages however have not seen the same rapid rise. In 2010, the average UK salary was just under £26,000, and had climbed to only £33,000 by this year.
“We aren’t building enough houses to enable home ownership,” the councillor said, but worried that a large number of MPs with “vested interests” in constituencies with local resistance to new development continued to be an obstacle. Earlier this month the government U-turned on setting annual targets for building new homes in response to a backbench rebellion.
“We’re being tugged from two sides here, but I think to be honest we’ve just got to bite the bullet and build homes,” they added.
Former levelling up, housing and communities secretary Simon Clarke, 38, is among Conservative MPs who insist that “we need more homes – as many as we can possibly build”.
He recently told a Commons debate on the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that not doing so would risk a “terrible problem” for Tories and that “enabling home ownership is an existential priority for my party”.
Clarke, the MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland since 2017, was recently announced as parliamentary champion for the new grassroots Conservative group Next Gen Tories. Launched in December 2022 by former Westminster staffer James Cowling, 27, the group aims to influence policy making to ensure that intergenerational fairness is at the top of the party’s agenda at the next election.
“It’s a bit of a stereotype that as you reach your 30s, buy your first home and think about having children, you start to feel the Conservatives benefit you, and it’s very clear that link is starting to erode,” Cowling told PoliticsHome.
He believes the party needs to look to when in 10 to 15 years time current 30-somethings will enter midlife, and take measures now to ensure they feel like they have benefitted from Conservative policies along the way.
He believed the current government should be “tailoring measures for aspirational younger people”, specifically in the three key areas of childcare, the cost of living, and housing.
“Housing is a big one,” he added.
“It’s about homes young people can afford. But also about lowering rents, or a route to lowering rents so that people can save, and you can absolutely do that in a Conservative way.”
The Conservative Party’s own vice-chair for youth, Hyndburn MP Sara Britcliffe, 27, agrees that the party has “a lot of work to do” to re-engage with younger voters with their policy programme, and that work on “the economy, childcare, housing” will be crucial.
“They’re significant issues and one of the problems that we'll have as a party is if we don't start to try and engage young people back into our party, is that in 10 years time, this could be a huge crisis for us,” she told PoliticsHome.
Britcliffe, who was the youngest MP to be elected in 2019 at just 24, believes that the party has already done some good work in favour of young people, such as the introduction of T-Level education and levelling up funding, but says the party needs to refocus on its "core value" of stability in order to "draw people back into conservatism".
"You speak to young people and what they want is the good job, the nice house that they can afford to live in, and to live in an area that they're proud to call home,” she explained.
“That is something that we as a party need to recognise and need to build on [...]"
She added: "We don't do enough to actually communicate the policies that already exist to young people, so I want to look at the wider strategy of how we engage."
Britcliffe said she agreed with Cowley’s assertion that the task of winning over young people should be seen as “an opportunity not a threat" for the Conservatives.
“We’re the party of aspiration, but we need to prove why we’re the party of aspiration,” she added. .
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