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The Youth of Today: Has Generation Cameron deserted the Tories?

David Cameron (Credit: Alamy - AP Photo/Sang Tan)

7 min read

David Cameron swept to power with the backing of almost a third of younger voters. How have the Tories managed to lose whole generations of support since, asks John Oxley

In 2010 David Cameron became the first Tory leader in 13 years to address a conference as prime minister. It was a moment of triumph, basking in the resurrection of the party from the doldrums to power. Another 13 years on and the legacy of that victory is ambiguous, with the Tory electoral coalition now in a very different shape – and once again threatened with the same sort of defeat from which Cameron had restored the party. 

It is easy to forget what an achievement this was. In 2010 the party won a swing of 3.7 per cent – winning nearly two million more votes than in 2005 and gaining 96 seats. Though he didn’t win a majority, it was a more transformative move than any election since, taking more than twice as many scalps as even 2019. In terms of both voters and parliamentarians, it was a whole new generation. It is one, however, that has proven remarkably short-lived.

Cameron’s mission since becoming leader in 2005 was to reinvigorate an ailing party. He hugged hoodies and huskies and used the A-list to surface a new, broader set of MPs. As well as winning back those who had drifted to Tony Blair, he aimed to win over voters who had never cast a ballot before, working hard to detoxify the party brand among younger voters. It largely worked.

The generation that swept Cameron to power has now almost entirely deserted the party as they reach middle age

The surge of young voters to the party was phenomenal. Thirty per cent of those 18-24, mostly voting in their first general election, backed the party. The cohort split almost equally between them, Labour and the Lib Dems. The party won 35 per cent of those aged between 25 and 35 too. Those who came of age in the Labour years were voting strikingly Conservative. 

This presence across the ages was sustained in 2015, but has now noticeably diminished. In 2019, despite performing better overall, with a higher vote share, more seats, and a bigger majority, the young had deserted the party. Less than a fifth of under 25s backed Boris Johnson into No 10. More worringly, the older ones, that striking Generation Cameron, had abandoned the party.

Those under-24s who voted Tory in 2010 were in their early 30s for the last election, a group that voted 51 per cent for Labour. In the cohort immediately above them, a plurality backed Jeremy Corbyn over Johnson, despite having predominantly voted Tory in their youth.  It was only the votes of older people that carried Johnson to a majority, with nearly two-thirds of pensioners supporting the party. 

The Tories’ fall in the current polling has compounded this. Surveys suggest that just 13 per cent of under-50s intend to vote Conservative at the next election. The generation that swept Cameron to power has now almost entirely deserted the party as they reach middle age. At the next election, this will mean big wins for Labour in the inner cities, but it will also deliver them vital swing seats in the suburban and urban fringe, where young families form a key voting block.

David Cameron talks to young people at SPEAR, a centre that runs free interactive six week courses for 16-24 year olds (Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo)
David Cameron talks to young people (Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo)

That these voters were willing to back the party at 20, but not a decade later should be very concerning for the Conservatives. When they first voted they were not ideologically opposed to Conservativism. They were comfortable with the idea of austerity and backed plans for less spending and lower taxes. Yet 13 years of Tory rule has left them unhappy with the party and less likely to vote for it than ever in their lives.

There are some key policy causes for this. The biggest must be housing. Young voters who backed the party in 2010 have borne the brunt of Britain’s chronic failure to build enough. Over the decade since they have endured escalating rents, while rising house prices have been a burden, not a benefit. This is especially true of urban professionals who now find pricey housing a real threat to their quality of life.

They have also suffered from the government’s failure to properly deal with childcare costs. While they may have supported rolling back the state in their early 20s, in their 30s and with families and children they are looking for government support or cheaper prices. The average cost of full-time nursery care for a toddler now costs nearly £15,000, making it a major imposition on family finances. It is easy to see why young families feel like the government is not on their side. 

The betrayal set in quickly. George Osborne exempted pensions from broader cuts, then committed to raise them with the triple lock on pensions. The average OAP now has more disposable income than the average worker, intensifying the issue of intergenerational inequality. Beyond that, the Tories have struggled to make any headway on tackling the housing crisis without backlash from older supporters, who tend to own their homes outright. This has become a self-reinforcing cycle – shoring up the votes of the old as the the young desert the party. 

Policy positions are only part of the problem. The party’s cultural shift in the last few years has pushed away younger voters, especially those in more affluent, urban areas. So-called “culture war” rhetoric has alienated many of those who felt comfortable with Cameron’s socially liberal tinge. Attacks on things like working from home and university education have also made the party feel out of touch with those who consider these things part of their lives.

Underlying all this is Brexit. Younger cohorts voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the European Union, including most younger Conservative voters. The decision to Leave, and the subsequent implementation of it, was decided by the old against their wishes – and as done by Tory governments, cemented the party’s place as the one for the old. This, above all else, has heightened the demographic divide. 

Young people at People’s Vote March for the Future rally in Parliament Square (Credit: Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo)
Young people at People’s Vote March for the Future rally in Parliament Square (Credit: Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo)

This is not just noticeable in the party’s voters, but in Parliament too. Many of the rising stars of the Cameron era have already bowed out of politics. Several were purged during the run up to Brexit – people like Rory Stewart, Sam Gyimah and Nick Boles have come to oppose the party, while others have simply drifted away. Liz Truss of course made it to prime minister – but now the future of the party looks dominated by newer intakes. 

These factors have killed off the Cameron generation – the young voters that swept the party to power in 2010 – as well as pushing away those younger than them, leaving the party woefully under-supported in younger demographics. This will hamper the party in the next general election but hinder its future even more. There is no guarantee these voters will come back, and in another decade the party could be estranged from the entire working-age population. 

Thirteen years ago, David Cameron had much to celebrate at the 2010 conference. He had not just won, but he had succeeded in building a party with broad appeal. One that could win across the ages. Despite its subsequent success, the Tory party is no longer that. Without Generation Cameron, those who came of age in the late 2000s, it is hard to see where its future lies. The failure to maintain support among the young has not come home to roost yet, but the data suggests that at the next conference, a leader may be lamenting losing it. 

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