Not So New Blue

Samuel Earle · ‘Young’ Conservatives

On Monday, 21 May, Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson launched a new Conservative think-tank, Onward. Its aim, in the words of its director, Will Tanner, a former aide to Theresa May, is to ‘reach out to millennials in their twenties and early thirties – my generation – who overwhelmingly voted Labour in 2017’. The inspiration behind the name is Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign, En Marche! The irony of invoking Macron to boost popular support – for all the media buzz, he won on the lowest election turnout in the history of the French republic – seems to have been lost on its organisers. With Onward, Nick Timothy writes, ‘the future of the Conservative Party is about to be revealed.’

Onward follows a number of other Tory efforts to court the young: Activate, Freer, New Generation, Refresh, Young Conservatives, and a new ‘vice chair for youth’. These have been accompanied by such youth-pleasing policy proposals as freezing tuition fees at £9250, and an Instagram push to make Conservative MPs look like ‘real people’. Last week the Times revealed that the party was looking to offer members discount cards for restaurants ‘like Nando’s’ to incentivise young people to join. Nando’s swiftly distanced itself from the idea.

The generational divide in voting has never been so stark. According to the latest YouGov poll, almost half of people under fifty say they would never vote Conservative, and only 16 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds say they would never vote Labour. The trend is reversed in over-65s. ‘It's harder to come out as being a Conservative than being gay,’ a Tory student said on Radio 4 in December – a conceit that, you sense, is a key part of the problem.

Activate was set up last August as a grassroots social media movement to mirror Momentum’s success, but it never got off the ground. It was widely ridiculed; its accounts were hacked so many times it became impossible to tell which the real account was. Leaked WhatsApp messages revealed Activate members talking about ‘gassing chavs’ and ‘shooting peasants’. It is now largely inactive.

Freer, an offshoot of the Institute of Economic Affairs, shares Hayek quotes on social media. It is chaired by two Tory MPs in their thirties, Luke Graham and Lee Rowley, who were new to the House of Commons last year. ‘In the most fervent battle of ideas for a generation,’ they write in their manifesto, A Freer Future, ‘a rigid old ideology has cloaked itself again in the language of compassion – and some of our contemporaries are currently finding solace in those words … Socialism stalks our landscape again.’

New Generation, an offshoot of the Centre for Policy Studies, aims ‘to find a new way of making the case for the market’. It released a ‘landmark’ collection of essays this month. New Blue: Ideas for a New Generation, launched by Gove (again), features contributions from Graham and Rowley. ‘Within these essays it is remarkable how often Michael Gove’s name pops up as a reforming figure,’ Robert Colvile, the new CPS director, said in his opening speech. It is indeed. It’s also telling, in the context of the party’s rediscovered environmentalism, that Gove is the environment secretary. If Gove is your secret weapon, it’s possible you’re fighting the wrong war.

What binds all these new initiatives – besides a narrow pool of personnel, and names that sound like brands of toothpaste – is a conviction that the Tories aren’t getting their message across. Conservatives' ideas aren’t unpopular, the argument goes, only misunderstood. For a party with the power of the press behind it, it’s a peculiar conclusion to draw. But it should be easy to address. Onward’s chair is Daniel Finkelstein, the Times columnist and Tory peer. Colvile is a former editor of the Telegraph comment pages.

They all speak of new approaches and new ideas, but the overwhelming instinct has been to double down on the free market. Refresh – a platform set up by the Telegraph last month to feature comment pieces ‘by young people, for young people, to provide a free-market response to Britain’s biggest issues’ – is typical. Whether the problem is unaffordable childcare, low wages, housing or the gig economy, the solution is the same: deregulate. ‘Childcare costs are holding women back – looser regulation would help’; ‘Want affordable housing? Stop overregulating and unleash the market’; ‘Young people have embraced the gig economy. We don't want it killed off by regulation.’

Beneath an array of new logos, in other words, the Conservatives are trying to argue that the economic consensus is a budding counter-movement, and hoping to bolster their case with some of the very things that make them unpopular among young people: en marche, indeed. ‘This generation are #Uber-riding #Airbnb-ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters,’ Liz Truss wrote on Twitter, to widespread derision. Conservatives desperately want this message to be true. Truss first made her rallying cry at the launch of Freer; the speech then became an article for Refresh; Colvile later turned it into a T-shirt. While Corbyn announces plans to ban zero-hour contracts, the Conservatives resolve to persuade young people that they love them really.

Truss is 42. The young seem to be getting older. May suggested as much when she announced she would raise the upper threshold for a young person’s railcard from 25 to 30, a plan that has since disappeared because no one in the party wants to pay for it. Tanner goes further: ‘The young,’ he says, really ‘means the under-45s, not just the under-25s.’ Graham and Rowley go further still: young people means anyone ‘born after 1970’. It’s as if any Labour-voting demographic is by definition young – even when their fiftieth birthday is only two years away. Better to extend the meaning of youth, it seems, than pursue an economic policy that will actually enable people to become independent adults.


  • 26 May 2018 at 8:38am
    Joe Morison says:
    Gove and Davidson seem an odd mix, and today PoliticsHome is reporting a plot for them run as a ‘dream ticket’ against May. I understand the appeal of Davidson, she feels like someone whose company one could enjoy after a good argument ending in an agreement to disagree; but Gove, in a very tight field, is perhaps the closest the Tories have got to producing an unadulterated emetic.

    • 5 June 2018 at 10:30pm
      Chrisdf says: @ Joe Morison
      Michael Gove is a shill for Rupert Murdoch, who must be delighted to have his agent in a tilt for the leadership.

  • 26 May 2018 at 3:25pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Our lefty laughter at the square Conservatives soon falls silent when we consider our own side. The same young who voted for Corbyn and find comfort in him as a father figure are the same who voted to stay in the EU. Yes, this riddle. It is very canny for the old peaked-capped socialist to wait for us to crash out of Europe then seize power, but will it happen?

    • 27 May 2018 at 4:51am
      Joe Morison says: @ Simon Wood
      It will be fascinating to see what happens at the next Labour conference. The Observer today is saying Momentum members will be pushing for a debate about it. Will Corbyn allow his largely pro-EU activists to discuss and determine Labour policy, or will he impose central control? I’d like to believe the former, that he’ll use it as an excuse for breaking the sacred (as it was frozen in time some two years ago) ‘will of the people’; I fear that he’ll fudge for letting the government get its own way, so that he can step in with clean hands to clear up the mess.

    • 6 June 2018 at 7:49am
      Dectora says: @ Simon Wood
      Yes, I know, but Corbyn doesn't do his own thinking, he outsources the process to Seamus Milne, who is a Putin worshipping Stalinist.

  • 28 May 2018 at 1:54pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Yes, that's what I mean, he will step in and save the day, clean up the mess, he will seize power, be the deus ex machina that is surely the next step up from icon which is itself a step up from inspiration, that is to say, inspirational motivator. That seems to be the theory, anyway. But the question mark hanging over all of this is, will it happen? Or is that question childish, like "Are we there yet?"

  • 29 May 2018 at 9:54am
    Ben Carver says:
    "young people means anyone ‘born after 1970’." I've just been told I need a tooth extraction, so becoming young again is some consolation.

  • 30 May 2018 at 3:34pm
    Vingtras says:
    "The irony of invoking Macron to boost popular support – for all the media buzz, he won on the lowest election turnout in the history of the French republic – seems to have been lost on its organisers."

    Fake News!

    1969 Presidential Election Second Round
    Turnout: 68.85%

    2017 Presidential Election Second Round
    Turnout: 74.56%

  • 2 June 2018 at 9:56am
    RosieBrock says:
    Re Macron and French Vote -it is bad news when a well argued piece like this states a case using stats that are wrong. Undermines whole piece. By the way, Momentum is losing pace and membership because of poor organisation and lack of 'connection' and also we are into the fourth year. The fact that members had to become Labour members to stay in Mmentum, doubling subscriptions has had an impact-and other reasons - people do not feel connected and the undisciplined politically naïve 'selfie' fringe within Momentum has also gone awol thank goodness. What is in effect a sleeping giant, is potentially comatose in freality except in a very few areas. Partly impact of Jon Lansman's necessary actions .

  • 5 June 2018 at 5:47pm
    ljblog says:
    Perhaps the most interesting stat about the last French presidential elections is that 11.52% of those who actually turned out to vote in the second round returned blank or void ballots. The usual rate of such active abstention is round the 5% mark. If you subtract these from the 74.56% turnout it leaves 63.04% who cast a positive vote. Still not quite a historical low - the equivalent figure (positive voters)in 1969 was 62.43%. But it does say something that over 11% of voters were actually moved to record their rejection of both Macron and Le Pen in such a way.

  • 5 June 2018 at 7:47pm
    ljblog says:
    Oops, elementary statistical error, shouldn't have subtracted, ahould have multiplied, leaving the correct figures for positive voting as 65.97% in 2017 and 64.42% in 1969.

  • 6 June 2018 at 8:14am
    Samuel Earle says:
    Re Macron & the vote – turnout in France’s parliament elections, where Macron won his majority, was the lowest ever.
    In the presidential election, turnout was lower in 1968 – but 2017’s total included an unprecedented number of empty or spoilt ballot papers: almost 12% of the total- as opposed to 6% in 1969.

  • 6 June 2018 at 11:11am
    Dectora says:
    I enjoyed interviews with rural supporters of Marine le Pen, one of whom had once voted communist.

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