News of a Tory youth campaign hit headlines last week. Activate, a grassroots Conservative youth movement as yet unaffiliated with the Party did not enjoy the reception it might have hoped for. Hal Stevenson argues that when it comes to the youth vote the Tories have much bigger issues at hand.
In the wake of a summer washed out by electoral disappointment, Conservative MP’s, supporters and onlookers stand unanimous in their view that something must be done to repair the Party’s relationship with young voters. They will also be unanimous in the view that the newly formed campaign group ‘Activate‘ was not that thing.
Activate’s founders, whose questionable judgement was indicated by their taste in memes and confirmed by the leaking of classist slurs on WhatsApp, say the group has been set up to engage young people in right of centre politics. Based on last week’s efforts, it appears they sought to do this through the raising of campaign funds from an un-stocked online shop and overpriced membership fees. Deactivation now looks likely to follow.
Yet behind this last gasp of silly season, a tragic comedy which has been choreographed to the marching band of Moggism and the tearful chimes of Big Ben, a serious issue remains. The Conservative Party’s appeal to young voters has disappeared. The Times last week showed that only 14% of surveyed 18-24 year olds would vote Tory, in contrast to 66% who would vote Labour. Troublesomely for the Tories, these would-be voters are fast becoming voters. This summer, 64% of 18-24 year olds turned out to vote, in 2016 it was 60%, a far cry from the 38% who rolled out of bed to vote in 2005.
In this context, the story here is not the failed launch of a grassroots campaign group, but that the Conservatives appear to have left solving one of the most important issue they face to Activate’s founder – a councillor from West Sussex.
Despite her protestations, it is highly improbable that Theresa May will be running the party at the next election. There are still young and inspiring Conservative MP’s out there; to salvage some form of legacy May must ensure that in her last days she gives them a platform to push on from. David Davis was a leadership candidate in 2005, when he lost to a new and ambitious generation of Tory MPs. Whilst this generation has all but disappeared from around the Cabinet table, it is essential that he resists the temptation of leadership this time – for the sake of reengaging with young voters.
Yet the issue of youth and personality is only one part of the problem. Yes young people voted for Corbyn because he appealed to them as an individual, but this popularity was also borne out of his policies. Whilst the Conservatives may look for party outsiders and social media-savvy grassroots campaign groups of their own, it is attractive policy that is required to win over younger voters.
Ironically, the electorally disastrous social care reforms were a step in the right direction. Offsetting the cost of elderly care onto the baby boomer generation of home owners would have allowed for reinvestment of funds into young people, helping them to get on the housing ladder or improve their employment prospects.
The Conservatives must also defend past policies, explaining the economic necessities of tuition fees, and pointing towards the recent GCSE successes of the Coalition’s academies as evidence of their belief in the importance of a good education for all.
In taking these measures they, and the founders of Activate, should remember that whilst politics is at its base a popularity contest, in a debate a joke is no substitute for a well-reasoned argument.