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The Tories need to reach out to young people – not berate them

4 min read

The response of senior Conservatives to students taking action over climate change was misguided. If they want the votes of young people, they should start listening to their concerns, writes Anushka Asthana 

It was striking to see the Conservative defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, tweet a breakdown of the 2017 general election result by age, following the defection of three of his colleagues to The Independent Group.

“Questions for my Party to consider with loss of 3 colleagues whose departure means our profile moves a notch to the right,” he wrote, after the news broke of Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen crossing the floor to join Labour colleagues.

“Below shows hill we face in appealing to the next generation to secure an election win. We must retain a wide appeal and be tolerant of a spectrum of views.”

The graphic showed how the Tories polled just 19% with 18- and 19-year olds, compared to 66% for Labour; rising to just 22% for 20 to 24-year olds (62 for Labour), 23% for 25-29 year olds (63 for Labour) and 29% for 30 to 39-year olds (55 for Labour). Corbyn’s Labour party even won among those in their 40s.

Of course, there were huge complexities taking place in 2017, as May tried to pitch to working class, Leave voters across the north, while Corbyn picked up more of the affluent, urban Remain vote.

But the figures should be a major concern for the Conservative party (with some MPs even claiming they pose an existential threat) and one that is surely a top priority for its strategists.

With that in mind, I was surprised last week to watch senior Tory figures responding to the school strike for climate on the Friday before half term. While praising the sentiment, they claimed that it was inappropriate for the children to abandon their lessons to make their voices heard.

Theresa May’s official spokesman warned of the disruption to schools, which he said would increase the workload for teachers and waste lesson time. He suggested that the teenagers would be better off in the classroom learning to become the scientists of the future, rather than on the streets protesting.

The leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom tweeted: “It’s called truancy, not a strike.” James Cleverly, the party’s deputy chairman, suggested the kids wanted to go out just to “bunk-off school”. All of which misses the point.

Climate change is the biggest crisis facing our planet. Arguments over Brexit don’t even register when you consider the possible fallout of 2 degrees warming or worse – with risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. That was the warning of October’s landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that called for urgent and unprecedented changes.

Recently on the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast, our global environment editor, Jonathan Watts, ran through the things that we can do as individuals to help in the fight against climate change. Much of it was practical stuff – eat less meat, don’t use the tumble dryer, take fewer flights.

But he was convinced that the single biggest, most urgent thing that needed doing was for us as individual people to take political action.

How best to do that? Fast forward to the school strike in which thousands of children were given the opportunity to take action. It is a real shame that a few of those teenagers decided to use the event to instigate sweary chants about the prime minister, but that was not the overall mood.

Just have a look at the banners that they had all painstakingly made: ‘There is no planet B’; ‘Join the Green side’; ‘We need system change not climate change’.

In terms of education enrichment, could there have been a better thing for these kids to do on the final Friday before half-term than taking action on the biggest challenge facing the world?

With no disrespect to teachers who work incredibly hard ever single day of the school year, the final day before a holiday is always a little more relaxed in the classroom so a good choice.

Amid political splits over Brexit, which risk – as Ellwood said – making the Conservatives appear more out of touch with young people, May’s party should not be berating these politically engaged teenagers, they should be fighting for their votes.  

Anushka Asthana is associate editor at the Guardian and presenter of the Today in Focus podcast 


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