Examine the headline figures of the political views of under-40s in the United Kingdom today — and weep, fellow Conservatives. New polling conducted by YouGov for the Centre for Policy Studies has revealed that nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds say there is zero chance of them ever voting Tory. Among under-40s as a whole, those who say they are certain to vote Conservative is now less than one in 10.
As someone who — just — falls into that age category, I find these figures depressing, but not entirely surprising. Voting Conservative has become countercultural for many people in Britain, Guardian readers among them. It’s something that those of us who have campaigned and fought in Scotland over the past decade know well. But — after making gains in both the Scottish parliament and Westminster elections in recent years — it’s also something that we know we can change. There are some lessons for the whole party in our experience.
The recent success of the Scottish Conservatives can be attributed in part to the fact we have fought proudly for what we believe in: Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. We believe it’s good for us all. We’ve sought to make an optimistic, positive case about that union, and many people have responded.
And we have sought to take on the question of motive. I am on the centre-right in politics because I believe freedom and the liberal economic order is the best way to eliminate poverty and provide genuine equality of opportunity for all. We have, all too often, let our opponents write our history for us. In the past few years, Scottish Conservatives have sought to write their own history, tell their own story and speak about why they do what they do — and in so doing, remove some of the negative stereotypes that follow us.
If they are to win over younger voters and others who currently see the Conservatives as anathema, what should those on the Conservative side of the fence do? First, those of us on the centre-right can be a little less shy of the values we espouse. And we can be confident that we are going with the grain, not against it. The younger generation, and society at large, is not yearning for a five-year plan of centrally delivered tractor quotas. Instead, Conservatives are a society that prizes individual autonomy and freedom of expression, and expects government to help us to achieve our goals, not set them.
Conservatives should seek to embrace this open, liberal outlook as a positive — and not a threat. But talk is one thing: we must also focus on finding practical solutions that meet the needs of people — because it is only through deeds that trust can be restored. Next week I will help launch Onward, a new think-tank, which will work to offer practical policies to support families across the country, focusing on the under-45s.
Top of the list of priorities are policies that will make housing affordable again. As someone who has only in the past year got a foot on the housing ladder myself, I know how difficult it can be, even for people on a decent salary. We must do more to level up the playing field, take on vested interests, and free up affordable land.
Or take education: Our system, across the UK, is fine and dandy if you’re a well-placed student at university with a clear picture of your career path. But what about those who aren’t? We need to do more for people for whom university isn’t the right path, by boosting technical education courses and making sure people in their 20s and 30s and 40s who want extra training can get it. In both cases — in housing and education — we can use the power of strong government as an enabling force, to help people support themselves.
The crash generation simply doesn’t trust the motivation of the Right. Given the hand they’ve been dealt in the past decade, there’s little wonder. A bolder narrative about the benefits of Britain’s free society and a bit more practical delivery is required if we are to show we want to speak to all, and act for all.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Ruth Davidson is the MSP for Edinburgh Central and leader of the Scottish Conservatives.