The Future is Bleak for the Tories

The Tory Party has nearly all the advantages in British politics - including the backing of wealthy donors and the billionaire press - but their weakness among voters under 50 suggests the future isn't theirs.

The Conservative Party has nearly all the advantages. It has the money, and the majority of the press to back it up, not to mention a broadcast media that barely challenges its propaganda. It has business on its side, and, following the capitulation of the Brexit Party, the Tories now have clear title to the issue of leaving the EU. 

And yet the outcome of the election is still in doubt. With less than a week to go, the polls are narrowing. Having already feasted on the cadaverous tissue of Nigel Farage’s support, there’s nowhere and no one else for the Tories to reach out to. In fact, we might even say there’s a touch of the last gasp about the Conservative election campaign.

Running on Empty

Reading their manifesto, along with the sinister-sound page 48 — which commits a Tory government to a fresh look at the constitutional settlement, curbing the ability of the courts to scrutinise and stymie government decisions — we can find pledges to extend voting rights for “ex-pats”, from the current 15 years after leaving the UK to perpetuity. 

The Tories also want to revive the constituency boundary review in order to reduce the number of opposition MPs and maximise their own seat share. They’re committed to introducing photo ID for elections as well. These are quick fixes, primarily designed to suppress Labour votes, making it more difficult to remove the Conservatives from office. And there’s one key reason for that: in the medium to long-term, the Conservative Party is in massive trouble.

Boris Johnson’s strategy is the same as Theresa May’s in 2017: talk a lot about Brexit, say the Tories are the only ones capable of delivering it, and wait for the votes to roll in. The only substantive difference between now and then is that Johnson is promising very little else. The 20,000 police officers won’t make up for the 21,000 already cut over the last decade, nor for the rest of the damage their cuts have done to the criminal justice system. And the statistical trick of counting 19,000 current nurses towards the 50,000 extra ones Johnson has pledged is easy to mock. 

But as the campaign has trundled on, with Johnson resorting to outright lies about his government’s record on counter-terrorism and what Labour plans to do, these missteps slide down the memory hole. None are the sort of “gotcha” moments that derailed May’s campaign.

And this is entirely deliberate. Brexit is potentially a huge wedge issue that can be driven between Labour and the third of its 2017 electorate who voted Leave in 2016. By pretending Brexit is ready to go, Johnson hopes to win these people over on a thin prospectus. He doesn’t want anything in his manifesto that could scare off those preparing to vote Tory for the first time. By the same token, however, the other concerns these voters have — particularly when it comes to public services, the NHS above all — mean that Labour’s strong policy offering might lure them back.

The Next Generation

But even if Johnson’s strategy pays off and they win a majority this time, the Tories are in a very difficult position for the road ahead. Their coalition of voters is ageing and not replacing itself. There is nothing inherently unstable about pursuing an “older people-first” strategy for any party, just as long as older cohorts are replaced by the next layer down as they age. The specific problem the Tories have is that growing older no longer seems to push people in their direction to the same extent.

The 1979–97 Conservative government lasted so long partly because Margaret Thatcher understood the need to use government to cultivate constituencies of voters. The “popular” privatisations of the utilities, and the sale of council housing stock, were designed to create Tory voters. As millions of people received more shares and property, they got themselves a stake in the system. 

Fast forward to 2019, and millions are locked out of that very same system. The stoking of house-price bubbles by the Tories and New Labour certainly benefited older homeowners and the solidly Tory strata of 2.5m landlords. But it has prevented millions of younger people from acquiring a property to live in — traditionally a step on the path toward conservatism.

This helps explain why younger voters are more likely to support Labour, because the party speaks to their concerns and can offer them a better life. The Tories on the other hand have to cling on to their present coalition, as anything that might address the shortage of housing and exorbitant rents could fracture their support base. And so, instead of doing something about their problem, the Tories want to put off the day of reckoning, trying to extend the lifespan of their older people-first strategy through the hook of boundary reviews and crook of voter ID. 

Their concern now is not so much reshaping society in the way Thatcher did, but merely reshaping the electoral system and the constitution so they can eke out a few more years before the generational replacement crisis really bites. Johnson’s boorish swagger shouldn’t distract us from the rotten foundations of his political project. Labour, in contrast, has a programme that speaks to the issues and social constituencies of the future.