The next general election is a substantial political juncture, with the polls suggesting a likely change of government. However, with both major parties at a significant turning point, this election will not simply decide the makeup of Parliament for the next term but determine the future fate of Labour and the Tories for years to come.

A Different Generation of Voters

The Conservative Party is plagued by a chronic engagement problem with young people. Senior Conservative politicians and their values fail to strike a chord with young people and are regularly the subject of derision. Indeed, the collective noun ‘Tory’ has long been a synonym for an insult thrust into general conversation and social media dialogue. This clearly manifests itself in polling of 18-24-year-olds, with the Conservatives at 5 per cent, trailing Labour by 58 per cent. This phenomenon is not new, though. You must go back to 1983 for the last time the Conservative Party was the most popular party for this age group (likely down to the SDP’s spoiler effect). Despite this, the Conservatives won the last general election with a landslide, notwithstanding a 43 per cent lead for a youth-oriented Labour campaign amongst 18–24-year-olds. Their historical success vindicates an enduring rule of thumb — voters become more conservative with age.

Change is coming, however, and should prompt both concern and an impetus for a new approach within the Conservative Party. Persuasive analysis from both the FT and the IEA suggests that younger voters will no longer simply ‘age’ into conservatism. Thanks to a ‘cohort’ effect, younger voters have developed socio-economic and political values that are distinct from (and further left than) previous generations — the impact of reaching ‘political maturity’ in an epoch characterised by the global financial crisis, austerity, Brexit and the appearance of right-wing populist politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. This analysis can be taken further. Home ownership is often considered a determinant of voting intention, with a higher proportion of homeowners voting Conservative. However, with the future housing prospects of younger people looking bleak, this demographic could, in future, become more challenging for the Conservatives to galvanise. Additionally, with younger generations spending more time on social media than older generations, the ‘echo chamber effect’ may reinforce their left-wing perspectives. This should make alarming reading for the party, with polling showing that 57 per cent of young people say they would never vote for the Conservatives. If these demographics ‘age’ into voting in higher numbers, without ‘ageing’ into becoming more ‘conservative,’ this presents a potentially existential problem for the party.

Labour Time?

If the Conservative Party realises their delicate position, they are not showing it, with recent policy announcements clearly disregarding young people’s interests. This includes the insistence to pursue policies such as the proposed changes to student loan repayment, which have been called ‘deeply regressive.’ The solution is to reverse course and begin to address the needs of younger voters more directly. Although not a short-term fix for their current electoral plight, implementing youth-oriented policies will not only address the needs of a generation staring at the future job and housing market with trepidation but could also provide the party with a better chance in future elections. Even if the Conservative Party does not take this direction now, the introspective self-evaluation and reinvention which will inevitably occur should be focussed on the creation of a policy slate that appeals to a generation that is beginning to feel permanently alienated from the party.

Understandably, these factors should lead to hope for Labour. Not only is the party the most likely to win the next election, but they are facing a government in disarray, and an increasingly alienated youth cohort. This represents a significant opportunity to take the initiative and safeguard future electoral success. As explained, the current younger generations are more left-leaning than their predecessors and hold values that align with Labour’s. While poor youth turnout at recent elections has been labelled as evidence of an inherently apolitical generation, there is more persuasive evidence to suggest that it is thanks to a feeling of ‘powerlessness’ instead. Indeed, there are many signs suggesting that the current younger generation is deeply political, with a strong inclination towards social justice and equality and a capacity for strong social consciousness.

If Labour can provide a political home for young people and demonstrate that its politicians are attuned to their interests, the factors currently inhibiting youth turnout could fall away. Starmer is doing a good job at tapping into the malaise and despair at the current government but is yet to properly demonstrate that Labour has the ideas and impetus to solve young people’s problems. If Labour can demonstrate in the build-up to the next election that they both recognise and will solve the problems presently plaguing Britain and young people, and give an intrinsically political generation reason to believe that parliamentary politics holds the solution to their biggest grievances, they may well come to the ballot box in higher numbers. As Corbyn found, the support and energy of young voters are not enough to win a general election alone. Still, young people may not only deliver Labour a larger majority but also provide the key to future electoral success. However, if this opportunity is squandered, the cynical perspective that ‘all politicians are the same’ may be reinforced and, when Labour need these voters in the future, they may be less inclined to partake in a democratic process which has consistently ignored their interests.

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