When I chat with Jess, a 28-year-old from Leeds, she’s out with her friends celebrating the reopening of pubs across England. She’s in a t-shirt that says “fuck the fucking Tories”, accessorised with huge gold hoop earrings that also say “fuck the Tories”.
It may surprise you to know that in the 2019 general election, Jess voted for the Conservative Party. In fact, she has voted for them in every election since she was 18. She says her support for them had a lot to do with her upbringing, being from a middle-class family and attending a private school.
Jess grew up hearing horror stories about Tony Blair and was told that a non-Tory government would “crumble the country”, as she puts it. “When you grow up in this atmosphere, it becomes part of your mindset too,” she explains. “Young minds are so easily moulded. I genuinely believed those comments, so I was a very proud Tory. I’m embarrassed to admit that now.”
Though family tradition has a lot to do with her voting track record, Jess did have personal reasons for not voting differently in the 2019 general election. She believed the government had a democratic responsibility to prioritise seeing Brexit through. “The Tories said they would be the party that ‘Got Brexit Done’, whereas Labour made it clear they did not want to follow through it.”
But when the COVID-19 outbreak began just over a year ago and the Tories acted in ways that were questionable at best, Jess started to question her support of the party – hence her new anti-Tory merch.
The turning points, for Jess, were Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle scandal and the number of Tory MPs voting against free school meals for children. The introduction of a tier system that effectively put the north and south into different lockdowns was also a big disappointment for Jess, who claims the Tories were “targeting the north unnecessarily”.
“Northern hospitality was forced to remain closed but the R rate was lower than in the south, especially London. It didn’t make sense. Northerners were treated like they were stupid while people in the south were out partying.”
Jess is not alone in changing her mind about her political views, according to a survey conducted by The Mirror. One in eight people in the UK regret their voting decision from the last general election – and with allegations of Tory sleaze in the headlines, it seems likely the number could increase.
In 2019, the Tories won by a landslide while Labour saw its worst election result since 1935. Despite Labour’s historically strong youth vote, the Tories also saw increased support amongst 18-35-year-olds.
It’s unsurprising that COVID-19 would galvanize young people to engage with politics and perhaps even change their political alignment. In the wake of Black Lives Matter and Kill the Bill protests, and the deepening crisis in housing, unemployment and climate change, young people are now more aware than ever of how politics impacts them.
Jack, another young Tory, has also begun to doubt the Conservatives during the pandemic, noting their “shambolic style” and the crackdown on the right to protest as “not good signs”.
The 28-year-old hasn’t always voted Tory. Like Jess, he voted for them in the 2019 election as he felt they were the party that could see Brexit through. He lives in Manchester, where he says “it’s a taboo to admit you vote Tory. For me, my only issue with any political party would be if they were incompetent or weren’t putting the needs of the people first. And that’s where the Tories are starting to fall for me.”
Though he doesn’t necessarily regret voting for the party – noting the furlough scheme, vaccine rollout, and plan to reduce carbon emissions by 2035 as great successes – he has been disappointed with their handling of the pandemic. “There was a slowness to act on closing borders from the beginning, and now, cowardice to return to normality swiftly. They seem to fear upsetting people and end up pleasing even fewer.”
Jack is most concerned about the Tories extending emergency powers and worries they won’t hand them back, or will use it as an excuse for government failure. With recent allegations that Boris Johnson declared “no more lockdowns, let the bodies pile high,” Jack says he’s much less likely to vote Tory in the next election – especially if Johnson is still the leader.
Though many young voters have changed their political views during the pandemic, some young Tories remain proud supporters. Tom, 24, voted Coservative for the first time in 2019 and still supports the party wholeheartedly. “My political views have not changed at all during the pandemic. If anything, the pandemic has made me think less about politics.”
Jacob, 27, says his support for the Tories is also unchanged. “Personally, I give the Tories a free pass for the last year. They haven’t had the opportunity to implement their manifesto.” He’s been disappointed with their handling of the pandemic – noting that the PPE shortage, the failed track and trace system, and voting against free school meals were “significant failures” – but he doesn’t think the pandemic would be any different in the hands of another party.
Unfortunately for the Tories, Jacob also doesn’t think they’ll see the level of support they had during the last election in the future. “Their actions during the pandemic will affect their ability to be trusted.”
Trust in the government has plummeted amongst the young during the pandemic, according to a recent study by UCL. In a survey of over 18,000 Britons, 19 and 30-year-olds reported the lowest average trust levels of any age group. Young people of colour also exhibited much lower levels of trust in the government than their white counterparts.
Some young Conservatives who’ve changed their minds still feel they have nowhere else to turn. Despite his uncertainty with the Tories, Jack agrees with Jacob that there’s a “lack of credible candidates coming from [any other party]”, so he’ll probably still vote for them. “Labour needs to get their act together, be a proper opposition, and start producing some clear policy ideas,” says Jack.
Jess agrees but stresses she will “never vote for the Conservatives again” after they failed to prevent so many deaths. In mid-March 2020, Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said keeping coronavirus deaths below 20,000 would be a “good outcome” – the death toll currently stands at 127,000.
“I saw what the Tories were truly like during the pandemic, and it breaks my heart knowing I voted for them,” says Jess. “The dead Britons are, in part, caused by them. I can never forgive the herd immunity plan, food bank use soaring, people being forced into poverty, and children being refused free school meals. I can never forget that.”