MANCHESTER, England—Some of the most senior figures in the Conservative Party are beginning to panic. This year’s election saw the biggest generational gap in support between the two main parties that pollsters have ever recorded.
At the Conservatives’ increasingly desperate party conference held in North West England last week, many of the events put on for activists, politicians and political thinkers focused on how the hell the party was going to recapture the votes of young people.
George Freeman, the head of the prime minister’s policy board, told a fringe meeting: “We alienated a generation under 40.”
Greater numbers of young voters headed for the polls in this year’s election. A large majority of them cast votes for Labour’s radical left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has promised to tear up the economic status quo. An unexpected surge, supported by grassroots training from Bernie Sanders alumnae, boosted the Labour vote and saw hundreds of thousands attend rallies while the chant of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” (to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army) became the song of the summer cropping up wherever there was a young crowd from soccer matches to concerts and Glastonbury festival.
The delivery of Brexit threatens to lock-in the growing conviction among young people—who overwhelmingly voted against it—that the Conservatives are not the party for them.
“Brexit has been the final insult,” said Freeman, at another event titled "Conservative Britain: Over 65’s Only?"
A comfortable majority of voters under 50 wanted to stay in the European Union. The Conservatives’ task is to prove to them that they understand their concerns and can offer an optimistic future that will suit all of Britain. Unless they can convince the Remain voters to keep an open mind, the party’s own future will be very bleak indeed.
There are some Brexiteers, like Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, who promise “the gloomsters” that they have nothing to worry about; Britain will bloom as an independent trading nation and the economy will be untangled from the European Union with a minimum of fuss.
The irrepressible Brexit campaign boss, Matthew Elliott, who was CEO of Vote Leave, told The Daily Beast that the vast majority of the country was happy with the result of the referendum and just wanted the government to get on with it.
“If you talk to younger voters—what are they more interested in: Brexit, or having more homes built that are affordable? I'd say the latter. So actually, it is important for people to remember the bigger picture,” said Elliott, a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute.
No doubt he is right, if young voters experience good jobs, rising living standards and affordable housing post-Brexit many of them will find no reason to regret the day that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron committed Britain to the referendum.
In the bars and fringe events of Manchester, however, there was a wave of concern that even temporary economic instability following Brexit would be blamed on the Tories.
Dominic Grieve, the attorney general under Prime Minister Cameron, said he had serious concerns about the reaction of voters in the elections after Brexit. “I don't actually think the majority of the British electorate—having all sorts of issues with the E.U., many of which I have no difficulty sharing—are going to be best pleased if the U.K. government takes risks which then start to have a clear and adverse impact on their well-being,” he said. “I just don't think we'll be thanked for that as a party or a government. I have to say, I think the only person who will benefit from it is Jeremy Corbyn.”
In the years after Brexit, no matter how smoothly it is achieved, there will be claims and counter-claims about the economic impact of the Conservatives’ negotiated exit from the E.U.
Freeman, who is tasked with shaping an ambitious intellectual future for the party, suggested that the Conservatives would have to “electrify” younger voters with a new policy offer if they were to save the party from electoral oblivion. “This is not a time for tinkering,” he said. “We're on a pretty serious burning platform.”
Aiming to “electrify" skeptical young voters is a seriously high bar.
On the main conference stage, Prime Minister Theresa May tried to appeal to young voters by pledging to halt the increase in tuition fees, which would be welcomed by many, but it is a pale imitation of Labour’s policy of scrapping them altogether. Another of May’s headline proposals was to build 25,000 new social houses—a promising start, but Labour pledged 60,000.
This was a clear, and expensive, pitch to younger voters, but you would hardly describe it as electrifying.
As the party debated its future, it fell to ambitious backbenchers like Jacob Rees-Mogg to articulate a bolder strategy.
Rees-Mogg, who looks like Wes Anderson’s interpretation of an English country gentleman, was the hottest fringe performer of the week. It’s interesting that the Conservative Party’s two "rock stars"—Rees-Mogg and Johnson—are upper-class former students from Britain’s most exclusive boarding school, Eton college. Their apparent authenticity trumps their lack of relatability among other party members, at least. The kick-boxing lesbian Ruth Davidson, who is leader of Scottish Conservatives, is one of the stand-out candidates for a more forward-looking cult hero who might one day have wider appeal outside the party.
At Rees-Mogg events in Manchester, the lines began to form an hour and a half before the father of six was due to arrive. By way of context, hundreds of fringe meetings last week had no more than a couple of dozen attendees.
At one event, Mogg stood up in his trademark three-piece suit and admitted that his party had made an enormous mistake in the last election campaign, during which they had contrived to lose the Conservative majority despite starting out with a 24-point lead in the polls.
“Dare I say, we didn't say anything to young people at all,” Rees-Mogg said. “We pretended they didn't exist because we thought they wouldn't vote and we were wrong.”
Since the late ‘90s voting had fallen among the under 30s, that changed for the Brexit referendum when young people came out to try and fend off the threat of leaving the EU. They lost, but those voters returned in June to give May an unexpected bloody nose.
Mogg argues that younger voters are more tempted by the idealism of Corbyn, whose principles and policies have barely changed in decades, because there is a sense that he is acting according to principle.
“I'm sorry to say that I was young once—I wasn't very good at it,” Mogg said to gales of laughter. “Young people and old people want to understand what our principles are.”
“The great success of Jeremy Corbyn is that he has persuaded people that the policies he believes in come from the fact that he is a socialist, and that therefore you see in what he is advocating a golden thread of belief and principle. And that's why I think they have so much appeal because many people — not just the young are idealistic —want to think there are politicians who will follow their principles rather than their major concern be office, and this has faced us with a real challenge — not because we don't have principles but because they haven't been what we have been talking about.”
Mogg’s conclusion then, is to remake the case for capitalism for millennials. It is a theory that was made over and over again at conference, spurred on by a major study published by the Legatum Institute last week that found the British public held a more favorable view of ‘socialism’ than ‘capitalism.’
Huge swathes of the British public believe that the current capitalist economic system is broken. A generational inequality gap, in which the over 50s have acquired huge capital through property, has left younger people who can’t afford to buy their first homes feeling that the system is no longer working for them.
Interestingly, Sir Roger Scruton, one of the few conservative philosophers in contemporary British academia, was making the opposite case to Mogg. “That idea I think is a very foolish one and it distresses me that the Conservative Party is toying with it again. What I would like to see is a cultural and patriotic Conservatism that reaches out to the values of ordinary people and has the courage to qualify capitalist enterprise whenever that is a threat to those basic loyalties,” he said.
Last year when May was riding the crest of her popularity, her conference speech sounded more like Scruton. She was focused on the limits of free markets, and how to bend them to help British voters. This year, she returned to the stage diminished and with her cherished advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill vanquished by the party. Now she was singing the same ideological tune as the party’s pro-Brexit right-wingers Boris Johnson and Rees-Mogg.
“Let us win this argument for a new generation and defend free and open markets with all our might,” she spluttered. To confuse matters, she also announced an energy price cap to protect consumers—a policy borrowed from the Labour Party—which rather muddied the ideological clarity of her message.
While this philosophical battle raged, it was the ego clash between the same players that dominated the headlines. Johnson undermined May in the build-up to the summit, and another wing of the party attempted to oust her in the aftermath.
Nadine Dorries, a pro-Brexit Conservative MP, even claimed that the attempt to get rid of May was part of a plan by Europhile MPs to stop Britain leaving the European Union. “The plot is by remain MPs to topple the PM, destroy Boris and put a remain leader in place to delay and possibly destroy #Brexit,” she wrote on Twitter.
What is clear is that party discipline has broken down. As glasses were raised at one gathering in the Midland hotel in central Manchester, party insiders said in unison: “Here's to strong and stable leadership in the national interest.” They were laughing at the slogan that led May to a shock election humbling.
If the party is to improve its chances of negotiating a good deal on Brexit—and help calm the economic shock of leaving—it needs to give the 27 other EU countries the impression of being a strong, united force. Anything else is likely to undermine Britain’s negotiating position.
So what can the party dream up that will inspire party unity, but also attract young voters?
At this year’s election, May announced a controversial policy on social care that would have made some inroads in taking wealth from older, typically Conservative voting communities. She was, at least, trying to address the issue of generational inequality.
Within days, she was forced to abandon the policy as the rest of her party rejected the raid their traditional voters.
The Daily Beast asked George Freeman—May’s policy guru who had been talking such a good game on appealing to young voters—whether he could envisage going into another election with a policy offer that would redistribute wealth from older voters to the young?
“If the question is: ‘Do I think we should pursue the issue of highlighting that QE (quantative easing) has had the effect of transferring wealth to people who have property in a very substantial way and that that goes to the heart of intergenerational fairness?’ Then the answer is ‘Yes.’ Now, how that is dealt with is the really interesting question. Politically, I don't think it's about attacking the economic interests of the elderly because the elderly in my experience very, very clearly understand that the prospects of the next generation are their prospects, but I think local solutions might be more powerful than national—rather than a national government saying we're going to impose a national tax.”
It would be difficult to turn his words into a slogan on a T-shirt or a chant at a music festival, but for the avoidance of doubt, the answer was ‘No.’
If the Conservative Party is going to emerge from the turbulence of leaving the European Union able to convince Brexit-skeptics that it has been acting in their best interests and deserves the keys to Downing Street any time in the next few decades, it’s going to have to get a lot more united and an awful lot bolder.