The failure of Britain’s governing political party to appeal to young people has been an obsession at this year’s conference, especially after the rightwing Bow Group think-tank estimated the average age of a Conservative member is 72.
Support for the Conservatives is just 27 per cent among those aged 18-34, and 33 per cent among those aged 35-44, according to Ipsos Mori, the lowest approval levels on record.
Young voters reshape UK’s political landscape Speakers at fringe events dwelt on the contrast between the near absence of young people at the conference and the tens of thousands of enthusiastic Labour supporters at the opposition party’s conference last week in Brighton.
The Conservatives once prided themselves on their youth wing, but there are fears that young people who are struggling to climb on to the property ladder or amass any savings will be unable to identify with the party’s centre-right values. “Around 10 per cent of people under 44 think we’re on their side if they’re in rented accommodation, 10 per cent,” Philip Lee, a junior minister told one fringe event. “If you think about it, it’s all incredibly challenging.”
He added that while Brexit dominates the party’s thinking at present, most young people regard the state of the National Health Service as more important. But despite the diagnosis, the party is having trouble producing a remedy. At many conference events, speakers have been reduced to exhortations that the party must redouble its efforts to explain the virtues of capitalism. At the meeting that Mr McBride and Ms McCulloch attended, Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, simply reeled off a list of looming innovations — including driverless cars, the potential of the Scottish Highlands as a place to launch space rockets and the prospect of robots picking the UK’s annual fruit harvest — as reasons why young people should be excited.
George Freeman, chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum, cited a report last week by the Legatum Institute that found high levels of support for nationalisation and strict regulation, not least among young people, as evidence of the party’s challenge.
“We now face a major task in reconnecting both Conservatism and our belief in free markets to an entire generation under 45 — a generation who have been hit by a perfect storm of post-crash economics, tuition fees, debt, house unaffordability and an out-of-control private rented market,” Mr Freeman said. It is perhaps little surprise that Mr McBride and Ms McCulloch, students at Stirling university, joined the Conservatives in Scotland, where the party has a charismatic leader in Ruth Davidson, 38.
Scottish Conservatives have had a big idea — defence of the union — to unite around. Mr McBride became involved in politics through the inter-party Better Together campaign for a No vote in Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, initially through friends in the Labour party.
“I realised that Ruth Davidson — I agreed with a lot of what she said,” Mr McBride said.
But even in Scotland, being a young Tory carries a stigma. Paul Brown, 25, said that some of his peers had been “shocked” when he told them he was a Conservative member.
“When I have been on social media I don’t like to be on it,” Mr Brown said. “Facebook during the election campaign was just full of abuse, similar to the Scottish referendum. It was just horrific, an echo chamber of the left.”
Elsewhere in Britain the problems are even more acute. James Morris, MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, told an event on Sunday that the government only seems committed to “incrementalism” even in areas such as the pursuit of better mental health services where it has taken action.
It was no longer enough, Mr Morris said, for the Conservatives to pledge £1.5bn extra funding for mental health services. The party needed to ally itself to the “important social movement” of young people open about the mental health challenges they faced. “We need to convince people we have big, bold ideas,” Mr Morris said.
Ms McCulloch and Mr McBride left Tuesday’s events, organised by the Design Council, unconvinced the big ideas to win back young people were ready yet. But, according to Mr McBride, it was a relief the questions were even being aired.
“I think at least the issue is being addressed,” Mr McBride said as he headed to another fringe event. “I think it was being swept under the carpet before because there was this assumption that young people didn’t vote.”
This article was amended to correct the spelling of McCulloch.
The original article can be found at https://www.ft.com/content/b97e04d8-a854-11e7-ab55-27219df83c97