The lesson from last year’s general election was clear. If the Conservative Party wants a future, it cannot be the party of the past. Four years away from the next General Election, the party has an opportunity to reverse its direction of travel, capture people’s imaginations and move forward to a fourth successive term. If it cannot, we will cede not just votes but power to the radical left.
In so many ways, the Conservative Party is stuck. The membership is not just dwindling but ageing, as Labour grows in number and rejuvenates in nature. Our campaigns are half-hearted and often analogue, while Momentum spawns party zealots and viral media. Our message is often one of protecting as much of today’s world as possible, not changing what is necessary for a better tomorrow.
The consequences of this were laid bare last year. The entire swing to Labour came from voters under the age of 44. Polls since suggest that six out of seven 18-34 year olds do not say the Conservatives are “on their side”. The cliche that conservatives under the age of 30 have no heart, and liberals over the age of 30 have no head, no longer holds. The dividing line is now much older – voting Tory is becoming a retirement pursuit.
Everyone agrees on the diagnosis. The question is how to turn the party around. I believe the answer is simple: we must do much more to talk to and speak for the generations that we are seeking to attract. This means putting young people front and centre of our offer – celebrating the next generation of leaders, developing policies that will help younger people, and building a network of under-40s who believe passionately in what the party is trying to achieve. It is not enough to say we care about young people. We must show that we really do.
This is an agenda I have worked on for over a decade. From 2007, I helped David Cameron to set up the National Citizens Service which now offers every 15-17 year old in the country the chance to gain experiences and skills that will set them up for life. In 2010, I co-chaired the Get Britain Working initiative with Theresa May to get young people valuable work experience with large employers. Most recently, I set up a family of world class schools, Floreat Education, with James O’Shaugnessy, which perform superbly for their young people and deliver real value for parents and wider communities.
All of these initiatives have delivered results, but the election convinced me that we need to go much further. That is why I teamed up with Neil O’Brien MP and Will Tanner to launch a new campaigning thinktank, Onward, last month. We want to breathe energy into the centre right, to win the hearts and minds of people under the age of 40, and to develop the ideas that will give young people back the feeling that conservatives are on their side.
A fortnight ago, we launched our first report on the biggest issue facing younger voters – Britain’s broken housing market. The statistics are frightening. Private renters spending 30% of their income on renting compared to just 10% in the 1980s. The average 30 year old spending two decades to save a deposit compared to just two or three in the 1990s. 2.2 million people locked out of home ownership because of the shift towards building for the private rented sector. Among our proposals were ideas to bring down the cost of land, encourage ownership and to create a million homes for young people over ten years to give young people the same chance to own a home as my generation did.
This is just the start. In the coming months we will publish major research on the things that matter most to younger generations, from bringing down Britain’s high costs of childcare to helping people retrain in a rapidly changing labour market, as well as detailed research to better understand what is driving young people’s political choices and how the centre right can win their support.
The next election will not be won by keeping things the same. It will be won by doing things differently: by using new organisations like Onward to reach groups that others cannot, communicating using new techniques, and developing a policy agenda which speaks authentically on behalf of younger generations. If we cannot, the centre right will go the way of billiards and croquet – a fading pursuit of an older generation, out of favour and increasingly out of touch.
Martyn Rose is Deputy Chairman of Onward