The Conservative party has a youth problem. This isn’t news. Party strategists have long ignored young voters as they are unlikely to actually turn up on polling day, unlike the elderly. But the young have finally made their voice heard.
Jeremy Corbyn reached out to the young and inspired them. They are still the least likely age group to vote, but there was a healthy increase on their turnout in 2015 with 57% of 18 to 19 year olds and 59% of 20 to 24 year olds turning out to vote last week. Only 19% and 22% of these age groups voted for the Conservatives. The Conservatives have become a party for the asset-rich elderly with dwindling support from the young.
The young are among those left behind by the current economy. Many young people struggle to pay off their student debts, find a job, get onto the property ladder, start a family. This means it takes longer for the young to settle into adult life. Labour’s manifesto made unrealistic promises to the young like scrapping tuition fees, but the Conservatives’ manifesto did not even try to win them over.
Healing the divide between the generations has become a pressing necessity for Conservatives. As the party which believes in a “property-owning democracy”, the Conservatives are well placed to offer realistic and popular solutions. Noel Skelton MP first coined this term in 1923 as part of his vision for a “Constructive Conservatism” which could elevate the economic wellbeing of the people. Conservatives can carry on Skelton’s ideas by tapping into young people’s aspirations and helping them become homeowners and savers. If the Conservatives fail to extend property-ownership to the young, then they will not have a future as a majority party.
Not only does the Conservative party need to produce popular policies for the young, it also has to communicate with them more effectively. In an age when Twitter helped Donald Trump win the Presidency, the power of digital media can no longer be dismissed as trivial. Even with the power of the right-wing paper press, the Conservatives failed to win a majority, while Labour nimbly used social media platforms like Snapchat and Facebook to engage with young voters. In Scotland, Ruth Davidson proved that Conservatives can be social media savvy and electorally popular. Unlocking the potential of digital media is now essential in our democracy and crucial for attracting young voters to the party.
As well as energising young supporters online, the Conservatives need to mobilise them on the ground. With the help of Momentum, Labour was able to send armies of young grassroots activists to key seats. The Conservatives’ recent experiences with young activists has been more bleak. Ever since a major bullying scandal which was exposed by the tragic suicide of Elliott Johnson in 2015, the party has ceased to have a functioning national youth wing. Lessons have to be learnt from what went wrong with Conservative Future so the party can create a safe environment in which young activists can make new friendships and support their ideals.
Even if young voters do not turn out in higher numbers for the next election, the Conservative party’s future depends on winning over the young. Conservatism cannot afford to lose an entire generation to socialism. In a democracy, Conservatism also has a duty to speak for all of the people of the country. That means healing the intergenerational divide in Britain and galvanising a new generation of young Conservatives.