THE BLOG

How The Conservatives Can Win The Votes Of Young People

01/10/2017 13:22 | Updated 02 October 2017

One of the big talking points at Conservative Party Conference every year is what does the future hold? Where do we go from here? How do we maintain our position as an election winning machine and a party of government? All pretty obvious questions you might think. But this year, that question is more relevant than ever, and arguably more pressing.

The Party's performance at the General Election amongst young people was immensely disappointing. I can't sugar coat it, gloss over it, or try to pull the wool over your eyes. But if we're going to put it right, we must recognise this stark reality and look honestly at ourselves in the mirror - without delay. In doing so, we must also recognise that there are no easy answers. No short cuts. Very few quick wins. But what should we do?

As a young Member of Parliament, this is a question I have been asked a lot since 8 June and in the last few months I have wracked my brains and tried to make sense of it all. There are lots of big monolithic issues at the moment - undoubtedly history defining - but this question cannot just be brushed over, put on one side for another day, or pigeon-holed as being 'too difficult'. After all, it's an existential threat to the future of conservative politics in this country, and by extension, I would argue a pressing risk to the future of our country.

So here's where I'm at.

First, the obvious one - social media. We simply didn't get it right in the election. Labour, with a huge boost from Momentum, owned this space - this space, where the vast majority of young people get their news and information from. We cannot allow this to happen again. Both the Party, and individual Conservative politicians, activists and supporters of all ages, must step it up. Not only must we argue our case here, but we must also engage in the debate, rebut the mistruths, blaze a trail and set the agenda. Politely, but forcefully. Frankly, we were beasted in this area of the campaign - often in a very distasteful way, and the abuse and unpleasantness need not be repeated here. But, if we are going to do better amongst young people, it is clear that we must talk about the issues that they care about in the space that they most rely upon. How we best achieve that, I leave to those far more knowledgeable about social media than I, but we simply cannot afford to allow Labour a free run. The relevance of social media will only grow and grow in the years ahead and in some ways, it is a small mercy that Labour's quietly developed firepower in this area was revealed at a juncture much earlier than had previously been anticipated, by the calling of the early election.

Second - again, relatively obvious, but let's get more young people actively involved in politics. Campaigning is exactly how I started out - pounding the pavements, knocking on doors and spreading the message - and it's fun being part of the team. We need to place a greater emphasis on the importance of this work and encourage our young supporters to get involved in it, with a focus on 'team'. Many already do, as I know from my own area - with incredible dedication and energy - but we can doubtless do better. Young people talking to young people has to be the best way of generating support amongst that demographic - in terms of both votes and actual help.

We should also try hard to encourage more young people to stand for elected office - as I did back in 2007, when I was first elected to the council at the age of 18. Again, in those ten years we have come a long way, but there are barriers, particularly for young professionals or those with young families. So we must look at this too, as we can undoubtedly do better. Young elected Conservative politicians, championing the cause in their areas, campaigning on the issues that matter to younger voters and delivering results, can only be positive and help to generate tangible support. Far too many young people still look at their local authorities, the devolved assemblies and parliaments and the House of Commons and feel a distinct representation deficit, with little or no connection to the institutions or their members. With a bit of effort and focus, we can help to address that. We should also not forget that that constant renewal is equally important in the context of securing the long-term viability of our party as a whole. Gradual decline only has one inevitable ending...

We should also seize the moment. The EU referendum campaign was undoubtedly divisive, and one of my biggest regrets in relation to it was the failure to successfully make the case for leaving the European Union to more younger voters. Now, as we do leave, let's proactively accentuate the positive and not just lazily accept the premise that the detractors and our opponents wish to propagate that this will be a disaster for younger generations. It won't be.

What could possibly be bad about our country trading freely around the world, boosting jobs and investment and in turn the employment prospects for those very young people? What could possibly be bad about charting our own future, building on existing schemes such as Erasmus and inter-railing, and being truly global in our outlook and our opportunities, through fostering new bonds of friendship and cooperation the world over? And what could possibly be bad about doing the right thing by developing countries, by being the responsible global leader in free and fair trade - providing long-term, sustainable, conditions for development and improving the lives of millions?

These are all arguments that resonate with young people - who increasingly do not see politics through a partisan prism, but through issue strands - and we must be on the front foot in making them. After all, let's take our own doorstep advice: "don't leave it to someone else".

And all this perhaps leads to what I would argue has been our biggest failing - not of the Conservative Party, but of conservatives with a small 'c' in general. We have simply been too lazy, for far too long, in making the case for why we believe in what we believe in. Let's not forget: we've not had the 'battle of ideas' within the living memory of my generation. Love or loathe his politics (and surprise, surprise, I've got no truck with him!), Jeremy Corbyn has stolen a march on us in doing exactly this. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of his message (and I find the highly disingenuous nature of it extremely distasteful and I hope the well-documented undeliverable promises are hitting home, albeit far too late), he has seized upon what was, for the large part, a dormant youth vote and given it cause to speak out and show up. We must now respond in kind - and fast. That battle of ideas that was last fought in the 1980s must be reenergised on our side too - with gusto and in the modern context. We must explain our values. Urge why they make sense. Why they matter. And most importantly, how they directly relate to the lives of young people and how they are to the betterment of society.

Let's take a practical example. The decision to revoke Uber's licence in London is infuriating to young Londoners, bad for the economy and bad for jobs. But look deeper than that. It is also a brazen undermining of consumer choice, an affront to free markets, and I would argue turning the clock back on modern 2017 life. That's not to say that there aren't issues with Uber's current licence which must be addressed, but this decision does appear to be a big old sledgehammer to crack a nut. So, in responding, not only should we be arguing the obvious that this decision is retrograde, bad for the economy and bad for jobs, but we should be articulating the case through a message which subtly, yet deliberately, emphasises our values of consumer choice and free markets - in a way that makes sense and is highly relevant to those young Londoners. Overall, clawing back the terms of debate is perhaps our most difficult challenge, but far from impossible.

This is all hard work. Graft. But vitally important nonetheless. This can't be left to others. We must all do our bit. Not only is the future of conservatism at stake, but the very future of our country. The clock is ticking.

Tom Pursglove is the Conservative MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire

Comments

CONVERSATIONS