The Tories’ forgotten generation

Published by The i paper (3rd July, 2017)

Damian Green is a decent guy. He is one of those pleasant, slightly plodding MPs on the traditional left of the Conservative party, genuinely concerned about issues such as inequality and poverty. He has few enemies and many friends after 20 years in parliament, during which he has bounced on and off front benches without leaving much trace. One year ago he was a backbencher on the losing side of the Brexit debate. Today he is arguably the most powerful man in British politics.

Green must be surprised by this latest twist. His elevation to deputy prime minister in all but name underlines the desperation of his old friend Theresa May after she blew a Tory majority with such fabulous ineptitude. He is the man who stood beside her as a demeaning deal with the Democratic Unionist Party was signed last week, charged with reviving party fortunes and driving through a domestic agenda while she tries to untangle Britain from the European Union.

This is a tough task. The Tories are in office but barely in power. Brexit looks ever more self-defeating, the economy is weakening and the prime minister keeps stumbling. One weekend poll found May’s net approval rating slumped an astonishing 41 points in less than three months, while her party has fallen significantly behind Labour. So it was no surprise to see Green sent out on Saturday to reassure voters the government is listening to their concerns.

Speaking to Bright Blue, a liberal Tory think-tank, Green proclaimed the dawn of a new ‘city Conservativism’ to woo young and cosmopolitan voters. Sadly he could not resist a dig at David Cameron, a flawed moderniser but one who actually won elections unlike his successor by appealing to such people. And for all Green’s fine words about change and bringing young, educated and urban Britons back to the Tories, much of his speech was highly defensive.

The first secretary of state did say there needed to be a national debate on tuition fees. This was in reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abandon them. The Labour leader claims they have meant fewer students from working-class communities are able to go to English universities, although there has been a persistent rise in the percentage of 18-year-olds going from most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. But as the party’s former education minister Lord Adonis says, the shameful greed of university chiefs undermined a policy that shifts funding on to shoulders of higher-income graduates.

At least the Tories recognise they face an existential problem after their electoral humiliation, which saw them heavily outgunned by Labour among younger and better educated voters. Amazingly Corbyn was ahead among those in work as well as students and the jobless, leaving May propped up only by pensioners. Green was right to say the party risks ‘serious long-term damage’ and that ‘fighting yesterday’s battles is a recipe for irrelevance.’ His bungling boss just proved this, destroying ten years of modernisation in ten dismal weeks.

The Tories are stuck with an insecure prime minister who is struggling to control her cabinet as disruptive Brexit negotiations finally start. They seem to have suddenly lost all sense of purpose or desire to defend any achievements. There is talk of lifting the pay cap on public sector workers, which makes sense, along with discussion of abandoning austerity and controlling capitalism. Green rightly underlined the need to build far more homes and devolve power to local communities. But this is not going to be nearly enough to reconnect with those lost slabs of the electorate.

Conservatism will never be cool. But the party needs to stop harking back to the past with talk of fox-hunting and grammar schools. It must show some compassion;  ditching the bedroom tax and more help for people with disabilities would be a start. There should be boldness on unexpected fronts such as climate change and drug reform, issues of greater importance to younger voters. And key figures have to learn the modern language of politics, which includes the ability to show emotions and sound like human beings rather than robots.

The great irony is that younger generations should be more fertile terrain for Tories than Corbyn. A spate of studies have found they display classic liberalism: tolerant of differing lifestyles and communities, as befits people more likely to have gone through higher education, yet also significantly more skeptical of the state, less in awe of public sector shibboleths and firm believers in personal responsibility. One detected more sense of collectivism among older voters. Another published this year found ‘Blair’s babes’ – who came of age under New Labour – are even more right-wing than ‘Thatcher’s children.’

Yet these are the generations turned away by May’s brand of Conservatism. And herein lies her party’s problem. For many of these voters are repulsed by two key issues that define the prime minister: her aggressive stance on immigration and her subsequent hardline take on Brexit. They are the ‘citizens of nowhere’ she sneered at so foolishly in last year’s party conference speech. They are people brought up in a multicultural society who are relaxed about diversity, constantly imbibing global influences and used to travelling freely. They believe in building bridges, not walls.

The Tories, spooked by nationalism, have backed themselves into a blind ally. Now they seek to grope their way out. They can tweak tuition fees, build homes, reinvent industrial strategy, restrain corporate misdeeds and unfreeze public sector pay. But until they recognise the fundamental flaw in their blinkered approach to the world, all these attempts to win back younger generations are utterly doomed.

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