There is a moment in VICE’s Future Debate when the young representative for the Conservative party, Nellie Gawne, is asked about her party’s press office rebranding itself on Twitter as a fact-checking organisation during the ITV debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
Not for the first time in this debate between young representatives of Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN), the teen Tory is left having to say that this is something she had nothing to do with. “There’s no way to defend that, to be honest,” she says.
Honest and articulate, Gawne is about as good a representative as the Conservatives could hope to have. But time and again, she is left hung out to dry by a party that has no real interest in putting forward policies that speak to people her age. Asked about the Conservative party’s active support for fracking – an environmentally destructive way of extracting oil or gas from rock – while in government, Gawne can only say that she doesn’t agree with it. She shifts to Tory support for congestion charging, a policy brought in by a Labour government.
It’s long been accepted in Britain that the Conservative party has no real interest in young voters, who have tended not to vote in large numbers and do not usually vote Conservative. At the 2017 election, the overwhelming majority of people under 30 voted for Labour.
Traditionally, one of the appeals the Conservative party had for older voters could be found in the name – conservative, the people you could trust to conserve an order you find comforting. This is often not what the party has done. Margaret Thatcher tore up Britain’s post-war social democratic consensus during her time in power, ushering in the era of neoliberalism, reducing public spending, privatising industry and handing power to the market.
Since they came to power in 2010, the Conservatives – first in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and then alone – has overseen unprecedented cuts in public spending, with £30 billion in government funding slashed. There is no conserving being done here.
This is clear also when it comes to the topic that takes centre stage in this debate: the climate crisis. We are in days of rupture. Floods and fires sweep across the globe. The rapacious brand of capitalism promoted by the Conservative party and its equivalents across the globe have led to extraordinary profits for fossil fuel companies and extraordinary destruction for our environment.
In this world, different thinking is needed. Ansh Bhatnagar, the representative for Young Labour, says that “it helps having a party that says, ‘no, things can get better, things should get better’”, while pointing out that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are not saying much beyond “you can tinker around the edges a bit”. This is shown in Labour’s willingness to challenge global capital and in its plan to end the UK’s contributions to climate change by 2030. The Liberal Democrats are aiming for 2045. The Conservatives are aiming for 2050.
Again and again, the Conservative party are shown to be a party that has no plan and no offer for young people at a time when our future is less and less secure. Their young representative is not a supporter of fossil fuels, but her party has no real plans to change the economic model that has contributed so profoundly to the climate crisis.
On private schooling, she and Stephanie Holmes – her Liberal Democrat counterpart – defend the status quo, pointing to the scholarships these schools offer to a handful of lucky working class kids. “There aren’t enough scholarships for everyone," says Bhatnagar, who argues persuasively that the rich should not be able to buy their way into university and the job market. Holmes is more plausible when talking about the value of specialist schools, but private schooling remains one of the most powerful ways in which class division is reinforced in this country and Labour’s desire to tackle it is long overdue.
In the end, of course, it’s not the kids that are the problem; it’s older voters who believe progressive change will leave them worse off. The idea that our society would be richer gets lost, viciously drowned out by an overwhelmingly right-wing press that has been painting the British left as dangerous thieves for more than a hundred years.
These newspapers and broadcasters would rather lead on a story about whether Jeremy Corbyn watches the Queen’s Speech at Christmas than on the climate crisis or social care or the chronic underfunding of the NHS or rising homelessness or the desperate lack of any affordable housing in this cursed nation of ours. In short, they would rather scream about patriotic symbols than address the real lives of the public. It’s a desperate betrayal of young British people. But as this debate shows, they are awake, they are paying attention and they are active.