Young people’s desertion of conservatism is not a global phenomenon

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The extent to which young people tend to vote more for leftwing parties and older people for conservatives is often overstated. For all the talk of Donald Trump’s toxicity to America’s diverse youth, almost 40 per cent of 20-something US voters backed him in 2020, and the same share plan to do so this November. More than a third of young adults voted for the right in the most recent elections in France, Germany and Spain. There is generally an age gradient, to be sure, but its steepness is often exaggerated.

Britain today requires no such caveat. While the Tories have slumped with almost all demographics, the near-complete desertion of Rishi Sunak’s party by young Britons is astonishing. According to the latest polling, only one in 10 under-40s will vote Conservative at the next election.

Numbers like these are almost unprecedented. How did one of the world’s most successful political parties slide to the brink of generational wipeout?

The single most important factor is the dramatic breakdown of upward social mobility in the UK, which has hit young Britons much harder than their contemporaries elsewhere in the developed world.

We tend to talk about the decline in young adults’ home ownership as if it were a universal phenomenon. This is wrong. The share of 25-to-34-year-olds who own their own home in the US is six percentage points lower today than it was in 1990. In Germany it’s down eight points, in France just three, but in Britain the drop is 22 points. It’s a similar story with incomes, where Britons in their thirties are tracing the same trajectories as their forebears while Americans are leaving theirs in the dust.

The conveyor belt of socio-economic progress may have slowed elsewhere in the west, but in Britain it has sheared in two, leaving a generation stranded below.

As Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, put it to me, this has completely changed the political calculus for young people. In the old Thatcherite world, young Britons had realistic expectations of upward mobility and home ownership, and their political interests naturally lay with the party of homeowners and low taxes. Today none of these things are true.

The sense of betrayal is palpable. Ben Ansell, professor of comparative democratic institutions at Nuffield College, Oxford has shown that young Britons have lost the belief in social mobility that was a given for their parents’ generation. Applying his methodology internationally, I find that just 39 per cent of British under-30s trust that hard work will bring rewards, far below those in the US (60 per cent) and Germany (49), and also far below the 60 per cent of British 70-somethings who believe the same because it was true for them.

And this economic decoupling from Conservatism is matched with a growing misalignment on values, brought into sharp relief by Brexit. A survey carried out by Focaldata for the Financial Times shows that the cultural and economic beliefs held by young Britons and by Conservative voters are almost diametrically opposed. The share of 18-34s in Britain who say they “strongly dislike” the Tory party was stable at around 20 per cent before the EU referendum, but has doubled in the years since.

This depth of brand damage means that even among young people whose values and economic circumstances mark them out as a typical Conservative, support for the party lags below where we would expect.

Focaldata’s James Kanagasooriam says the Tories are facing into a strong headwind. “All the weathervanes for young people are pointing in one direction — social beliefs, economic beliefs, economic position, Brexit, and geography — but international comparisons show this is not necessarily a permanent state of affairs”.

With misalignment on multiple axes, it’s little surprise that the Tories’ scant offering of young-adult-friendly policies has fallen flat. Where does the party go from here?

Their short-term hope will be that a Labour government finds it no easier to restart the conveyor belt and becomes the new vessel of the jilted generation’s ire. But long-term their only hope for success has to be a complete upturning of recent priorities to focus on creating a new cohort of upwardly mobile Britons, even at the cost of ructions among their older base. Conservative parties overseas show rejuvenation is possible if tough decisions are made.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com, @jburnmurdoch

Data sources and methodology

Values misalignment survey: Focaldata surveyed 2,005 British adults between 4 and 5 February 2024, as part of an ongoing piece of research on compounding factors of progressive attitudes among young Britons. The conservatism scale is calculated by summing four scales: housing tenure (scaled from living with one’s parents to owning a home outright), attitudes towards Brexit (scaled from negative to positive), social values (scaled from progressive to conservative views) and economic values (scaled from leftwing to rightwing views).

Political age gradients across the world: Data on detailed age-breakdowns of voting patterns was taken from an as-yet-unreleased update to the World Political Cleavages and Inequality Database, kindly provided by Amory Gethin with support from Morten Støstad. YouGov supplied detailed age breakdowns of current voting intentions in the UK and US, with additional US data provided by Ipsos and Quinnipiac, and current voting intention for Canada supplied by Abacus Data.

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