Not So New Blue
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.