Why Are Young British People Turning Conservative?

A growing number of British Generation Yers are inclined to vote for the Tories, even though that's traditionally the party of old white bigots who don't care about young people.

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Apr 14 2014, 5:30pm

Members of University College London's Conservative Society. Photo courtesy of Louisa Townson

It’s been a long time since the UK's Conservative Party could count on the youth vote. As in the US, right-wingers are often regarded as unhip and unfeeling rich men, and possibly as a result, your average Tory branch meeting looks a lot more like a Rotary Club get-together than anything resembling the bright young future of British politics.

However, according to last year’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, Generation Y’s support for the Tories has doubled to 20 percent since 2003. Surprisingly, a UK-wide survey also found that Conservatives are the most popular party among students, and March’s Guardian/ICM poll revealed that 54 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds would consider voting Tory at the next election.

I wanted to find out what this new generation of Tories is like, and I figured that the best way to do that was to go speak to some of them.

Members of UCL's Conservative Society (left to right): Cameron Jones, Kevin O'Neill, Louisa Townson, and James Price. Photo by Huw Nesbitt

Though it's a center of radicalism within the UK's student protest movement, University College London is also home to the oldest Tory student association in England, the UCL Conservative Society. Founded in 1908, the club began just two years after the Conservative Party launched its first national youth group, the Junior Imperial and Constitutional League.

Louisa Townson is the current UCL Tory Society president. A 24-year-old in the third year of a neuropharmacology PhD, she estimated that the society has about 40 members. She’s from David Cameron’s constituency of Witney, Oxfordshire, and is undoubtedly middle class, but hardly a typical Tory; she is, after all, a young woman in a party whose average age is 59, whose 304 elected representatives include only 48 women, and which is currently taking flak for having no full members of the cabinet in posts concerning women’s issues.

So what attracted her to a party that’s mostly made up of old men?

Townson and other members of the UCL's Tory Society raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support as part of their social action program. Photo courtesy of Louisa Townson

“I first became affiliated with the Conservatives in the 2010 general election,” she said. “The election debates in 2010 really engaged me, and I found myself agreeing more and more with [the Conservative Party's] David Cameron and George Osborne. After that, I became a member. It was just Tory economics that convinced me, really. We'd had this huge [financial] crash, and we knew we had to sort out the national debt and the deficit. Their broader principles also agreed with me. I’ve always been a firm believer in aspiration, social progress, personal responsibility, and small government.”

In short, the policies that inspired a bunch of students to storm Millbank way back in 2010 are the same that have won over UCL’s young Tories.

The tripling of tuition fees? “I think that was fair,” said Towson. Unemployed people being asked to "volunteer" for their benefits? “I think it would be good if they can give something back,” she continued. One million unemployed young people and 50 percent of graduates going into non-graduate jobs? “Young people’s literacy and numeracy are worse than their parents',’” said James Price, a 23-year-old security-studies student from Gloucester. “And if you do a degree in something that’s not going to give you practical skills, what can you expect?”

“We've always been the party of economic freedom, both left and right of the party, young and old,” said Oliver Cooper, president of the Tory youth movement Conservative Future. “On top of that, younger generations are more in touch with personal freedoms, civil liberties, and social freedom. Our younger members seem to be as interested in ideas of classical liberalism as they are in supporting tolerance of all sorts of lifestyles.”

Nick Robinson, former Young Conservatives chairman and current BBC political editor, taking a selfie with some young Tories. Photo courtesy of TheBlueGuerilla.co.uk

Cooper may be right. Other data from the BSA survey supports the view that millennials are generally more tolerant of same-sex marriage, less likely to support patriarchal family roles, and the most likely to support a student’s right to wear traditional religious clothing at school. Basically, we’re less likely to be bigots.

However, in what could be seen as a slight contradiction, young people also have the lowest pride in the welfare state, feel that less money should be spent on welfare for the poor, and believe that more people would find a job if jobseeker’s allowance wasn’t so generous. So what they seem to be saying is that you should enjoy your gay wedding, but if you can’t find a job as soon as your honeymoon is over, suck it up and starve until you do.

Admittedly, this is only part of the story. Another report, commissioned by think tanks Ipsos MORI and Demos, concluded that there is actually strong support among Generation Y for benefits for single parents, the elderly, and those with disabilities. It also noted that young people’s dwindling pride in the welfare state may be the result of cutbacks to services, rather than some ideological objection—budgets are cut and the services get worse, so we support the programs less.

That general trend seemed to be reflected in the attitudes of the UCL Conservative Society’s members. They thought the anti-immigrant “Go home or face arrest” campaign was a “disgrace,” saw the introduction of gay marriage as a victory, and proudly told me that they recently won a debate with the King’s College Tory Society in favor of immigration.

Mahyar Tousi, Conservative Future member and Conservative candidate for Lee Green, with some supporters. Photo courtesy of con4lib.com

“I'd say I was fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” said Kevin O’Neill, a 24-year-old from Northern Ireland who’s currently taking a break from studying medicine in Newcastle to read politics, philosophy, and economics at UCL. It seems peculiar that Kevin should be a Tory—he told me that his family vote for the SDLP, Labour’s Northern Irish Republican counterpart.

In Northern Ireland, he said, “you vote according to your political background—no one's interested in the bigger picture. When I was 17 I became interested in current affairs, and someone like [former prime minister and right-wing icon] Margaret Thatcher I can feel some parallels with, not just in terms of her politics. She came from a working-class background, went to a grammar school, and just got on, which is similar to me.”

A love of Thatcher was something of a theme. James Price called her a “working-class radical,” adding, “My grandfather was a Welsh miner, and my father was a Tory in the 1970s, and I’ve met Marxists who’ve had a hard time accepting that fact. But that was the great thing about Thatcherism—you could be whoever you wanted to be, regardless of where you were from.”

Young Tories posing with an anti-Tory poster. Photo courtesy of TheBlueGuerilla.co.uk

Professor Tim Bale, author of The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron, believes that the party has never had any interest in its young supporters.

“The Conservatives are always claiming that they’re going to redouble their efforts to engage various 'hard-to-reach' communities like young people, but historically their efforts have never been impressive,” he says. “Institutionally it’s not a party for them—only 6 percent of its members are aged 18 to 24. And while predecessors to Conservative Future, such as Young Conservatives, might have been popular in the 1950s and 1960s when they had thousands of members, Tory youth politics has never been taken seriously ever since.”

There certainly seems to be a focus on the old with this government—Chancellor George Osborne’s spring budget, for instance, catered to older people through pension reforms and raising tax thresholds—probably because they’re more likely to vote.

Nevertheless, Cameron’s leadership has been so unpopular with the party’s traditional supporters that its membership has halved to 134,000 since 2005 (its lowest number in 70 years), with many members believed to have defected to UKIP. Of course, with that average age of 59, it's possible that many have simply died off, but Cameron still must feel that he can’t risk further instability with an election so close. He seems set to continue his appeasement of the Tory right until 2015, at the expense of young Tory modernizers. “Because there are so many backbench Tories whose views don't chime with the social liberalism that young Tories espouse, there are still these stumbling blocks for the party when it wants to reach out to young people,” said James Price.

So while it’s clear that an increasing number of young people are identifying with traditionally right-wing views, it may be that the biggest hindrance to young people joining the Tories are the traditional Tories themselves.

Follow Huw Nesbitt on Twitter.

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