Earlier this year, the First Secretary of State, Damien Green, caused rather a stir when he claimed that the Conservatives must "change hard" to win over young voters. Mr Green seemingly conceded that something would have to be done about tuition fees, given how well Labour’s policy was received by young people, causing the majority of them to vote for Labour.
Green is right to point out that something needs to be done about tuition fees. One supposes that the Tories will not go as far as abolition of fees, but certainly a reduction of them could be explored. However, whilst it was his remark on tuition that caused the most controversy, the wider context of his speech – namely, how to get young people to vote Tory – is the more important lesson for the Party.
The Tories do not appeal to young people, for reasons that go far beyond tuition fees.
The party’s current stance on immigration is at odds with many politically-engaged youngsters - the majority of who are pro-immigration. The Tories' environmental record is less than stellar, and on climate change, the Party lags behind not only Labour, but the Greens and Lib Dems too. Past stances on gay and minority rights, the Tories current position on Brexit, racist remarks made by various MPs – the list goes on as to why many young people simply aren’t turning out to canvass and vote for their local Tory candidate.
Those Tory MPs that are at least somewhat respected by young people are those on the party’s liberal, centrist, pro-European wing. Kenneth Clarke for example, is seen as a respected, wise and measured figure within a Party that seems to be ever more in danger of drifting further to the right. However, his age leads many to wonder how long he will continue in Parliament.
Thus, if the Tories are serious about wanting to appeal to the youth, they need to look at their female backbenchers and allies. Heidi Allen, MP for South Cambridgeshire, is well respected for her willingness to criticise her leader quite openly, especially regarding Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’, and the racist comments made Anne-Marie Morris. Anna Soubry is well-liked for her criticisms, not only of Theresa May’s decision to call an early general election, but also for her impassioned speeches on the EU, as well as her support of immigration.
Of all the women associated with the Conservatives, it is Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, that often receives the most plaudits. Her demeanour is professional yet relaxed, her stances on social issues like gay marriage and women’s rights chime well with young voters, and her performance during the EU Referendum last June, where she gave many an impassioned speech on the need to remain in the EU, whilst also attacking Andrea Leadsom and Boris Johnson, won her much praise.
However, focusing on individuals is not enough. There needs to be palpable policy change too. The Tories should look to the likes of the VVD in the Netherlands, the CDU in Germany, and the various other moderate centre-right parties found in places like Finland or Norway. These parties manage to marry fiscal conservatism with support for the EU, gay rights, fairly open immigration laws, a more environmentally-conscious image and, more importantly, a supportive welfare state that aids those most in need.
It is uncertain whether the party shall go down such a route. There are individuals within the party who could make a move, get lucky, and end up being in contention for the leadership position when Theresa May eventually departs from No. 10. However, with the party bitterly divided over their approach to Brexit, one thinks that if the party did adopt the policies of various moderate parties in Europe, it would likely create a split. After all, the majority of young people do not want Brexit to happen.
Perhaps the question we should be asking is this: Can the Tories ever appeal to young people, or are divisions on issues like Brexit so deep that it would take a new party, rather than a new image, to get young people to support conservativism?