Hey Kids, Join the Tories!

A centrist think-tank wagers there are 3 million young voters who could be convinced to join the Conservative Party with just a few image tweaks. Unfortunately for them, that’s delusional.

British Prime Minister Theresa May dances as she walks out onto the stage to deliver her leader's speech during the final day of the Conservative Party Conference at The International Convention Centre on October 3, 2018 in Birmingham, England. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Onward, a new British center-right think tank, recently released a report entitled Generation Why?. It shows that the average age when voters switch from Labour and start backing the Conservatives has gone up . . . and up and up to reach fifty-one. That means, if you live to be a century old, statistically you’ll spend slightly more of your life voting Labour than you will voting Conservative.

Unless the Conservative Party has a way to turn the Barbour-sporting, Jaguar-driving, property-owning pub bores of Tunbridge Wells into immortal vampires, this is bad news for them in the long term, as the Tory “cartoon supervillain” approach to governance shows itself to be less and less electorally viable among living humans, who represent an important voting bloc.

Generation Why suggests there is a cadre of three million people under thirty-five “who would consider voting Conservative but would not do so tomorrow,” unless the party returns to the “center ground.” What’s the center ground, exactly? Onward’s research says it’s all about “being tough on crime, reducing migration, reducing taxes, making public services more efficient, caring about the environment, and acting to ensure businesses are acting responsibly,” while at the same time acting “relentlessly . . . to make young people materially better off . . . make developers invest in local infrastructure, and improve the quality of new housing.”

Their vision of the center ground seems to be about unleashing the ability of business to flourish by slashing taxes, while sharing economic growth more evenly. But how can you do both at the same time? You can’t invest in the services young people use if you dogmatically refuse to tax the rich. So why would they buy into your political program?

The report frames age as the key variable in UK politics. But that obscures three key, related realities. Firstly, decades of successive UK governments have worked tirelessly to increase returns to capital at all costs. Secondly, to enjoy increased returns on that capital, you need to hold capital in the first place. Thirdly, after the financial crisis, working people had no chance to accrue any capital as public assets had already been strip-mined.

Onward’s mealy-mouthed proposals reveal a fundamental contradiction at the heart of any post-Thatcher Conservative appeal to young voters. Young voters have ended up on the wrong end of decades of successive redistributions of capital upward. Conservatives are responsible for that upward redistribution, and millennials know it.

It is amusing that the Conservative Party needed to commission a statistical report to show that housing is one of the most significant factors driving a generational sea change against them. Why, if you’re living month to month under a landlord who stumbled ass first into property ownership in the 1980s, would you support a political organization whose primary animating influence was to enrich him at your expense? Why would you suddenly turn thirty and, still barred from access to capital, decide to start voting against your own interests? The Conservative strategy of mortgaging tomorrow’s shared prosperity to buy votes today with tax breaks and public sector giveaways has, quite reasonably, created some durable anti-Tory sentiment among the losers of this equation.

As others have pointed out, it’s strange that nevertheless, the report is so optimistic about the existence of three million “Conservative Considerers.” They might vote for the party, Onward ventures, if only its whole message and policies were different. Faced with a thorny political issue, Tory outriders can only offer image tweaks, branding, and a boundless faith in the ability of innovation to hand-wave poverty away — somehow without making the rich worse off. Perhaps by turning Britain into a nation of app billionaires? The approach they intend is as yet unclear.

Tory MP Liz Truss suggests that the Conservatives need to adopt “popular free market conservatism,” which contains three core principles:

  1. We should focus on people’s priorities not the blob of vested interests.

  2. For a free market economy to succeed — everyone must have a shot.

  3. The state should help people on the margins take control of their own lives — not tell capable citizens what to do.

The Tories believe in your swimming abilities to such an extent that they refuse to throw you a life vest — frankly, you would probably just find that insulting. Who needs food and shelter when you have a big thumbs up and a “Go get em, tiger” from your friends in the Conservative Party?

If the Left has a reason to be optimistic, it’s this: the Right are facing an existential threat electorally, and this is the best they can muster. Young British voters live chaotic, unpleasant lives not because of “big government,” but because of the (mostly) older, richer British voters who charge the rent on the houses they live in, and who own the businesses commanding their labor. This is not to suggest that the old are all Tories — there are comrades of all ages — but rather that the neoliberal focus on asset stripping the country to keep taxes artificially low has made relative barons of one generation and paupers of another.

Proposing to solve young people’s problems with a dogmatic commitment to shrinking government is magical thinking. How do you “empower young people to succeed” without reducing the ability of wealthier, older people to reduce the horizons of their lives to the next rent check or Deliveroo ride? This report, and the comments around its launch, prove that the Conservatives got so Thatcherite they eroded their own ability to think critically about policy.

The report concludes thusly: “If the Conservative Party wants to win over more younger voters it . . . needs to make young people materially better off and improve its standing among ethnic minority communities.” This is a very tall order for the party that decimated the power of trade unions, oversaw the deportation of countless people of color, and traded my generation’s prospects for a stable, prosperous life away for the personal enrichment of their friends in the homebuilding and financial sectors. But on the other hand, everybody loves a comeback.