Losing the generation game

The local elections reveal a bitter demographic conflict

Artillery Row

It’s not been a happy year for the Tories. Yesterday’s poor results in the local elections merely confirmed the obvious. 10 Downing Street has been besieged by scandal of the worst sort — one that combines absurdity with hypocrisy, with new enraging tidbits slowly leaked to the media. It would be one thing if the government could point to successes, but if you clear aside the bad news cycles, you’re left with an even grimmer underlying picture.

There’s a real venom in the air

Older people are certainly angry with Boris over Partygate, but young people are furious. Why? Consider that Britain has some of the highest house prices in the world, that our housing stock is held almost entirely by people over the age of 40, and that the adult life of someone entering their 30s today began with the 2008 crash, and since then that person would have seen wage stagnation, unprecedented austerity, and a rise in the cost of living. 

Consider also that all of this was true before the pandemic when young people found themselves locked in their university dormitories, cramped flats or childhood bedrooms, banned from travelling, seeing their friends, going to the pub or having sex. But young people already have fewer friends, less cash to spend, and are having less sex than earlier generations. Lockdown, and its catastrophic economic and social consequences merely accelerated existing trends. Even house prices went up:

At this point one imagines that if nuclear weapons were dropped on this country, the Thames boiled away to nothing, and twisted mutants wandered the blasted landscape, we’d somehow find a way to create a speculative housing bubble in fallout shelters. Wages go down, taxes increase, and pensions and property increase in value: these are the Newtonian Laws of the modern British economy.

Nobody has forgotten about Grenfell

The special hatred young people have for Boris becomes clear: he embodies the contempt of an older, more privileged generation for the most unfortunate crop of British youngsters since the Great War. No homes for the Covid heroes — young people instead got a rent hike and a National Insurance increase for their troubles. Little wonder then that the Conservative Party, which has come to embody the special interests of pensioners and homeowners, is not winning over the young, even as they march towards middle age:

As Charlotte points out the situation in London is one of the big stories coming out of this election. People whose political baptism was the cancellation of the EMA and the tripling of tuition fees may now never vote Tory. 

Many of my young conservative-minded friends and acquaintances (including Tory members and voters) have reported voting Labour in disgust on Thursday. There’s a real venom in the air that’s very different than the enthusiasm for New Labour that swept the old Tory ascendency from power. There’s little positivity around Starmer or the Labour project, but there’s a huge reserve of malice for the Tory party and, worryingly, its voters too. 

The Tories have massively overestimated their ability to stumble unscathed from crisis and scandal. Yes, with serious domestic and overseas emergencies, bursts of Johnsonian adrenaline, and the mood music of the right-wing press machine, they have thus far prevailed. But in the process they have created terrible scars that may be as deep as those left by Thatcher, 40 years ago. 

Anger is out there sizzling beneath the surface, waiting to break out

In London especially, nobody has forgotten about Grenfell. Although Kensington and Chelsea itself has held, neighbouring boroughs have been turning red. When the Grenfell disaster first occurred, the Tory response was disastrous. Theresa May infamously failed to talk to residents in the immediate aftermath of the blaze. Former residents were still struggling to find housing months and even years afterwards. Jacob Rees-Mogg was accused of making callous remarks following an extremely ill-advised media appearance in which he speculated about the failure of residents to leave their flats. And as the government scrambled to fix dangerous apartment buildings, the cost of fire safety was handed on to renters who could ill afford it.

Anger is out there sizzling beneath the surface, waiting to break out. Our focus on populism in this country has been on older, white, suburban and rural voters, and on silver-haired insurgencies like Brexit. But as young people become both more politically engaged and more economically marginal, and as house prices soar to new extremes, something will have to give. Populist movements of the left, as with Corbyn’s Momentum in the Labour Party, or the success of Sinn Fein in Ireland have been driven by big promises on rent, cost of living and education. 

But don’t assume the young are eternally wedded to the left either. In France Marie le Pen continues to be the most popular candidate for French youth, with an extraordinary 49 per cent of 25-34 year old voters backing her in the recent presidential election. Her economic nationalism combined with an ability to direct anger and frustrations against the French elite make for a potent combination. 

A consolidation around the centre ground, as represented by Macron, and advocated by many tired old hacks and political has-beens (the undying centrist dads of the British establishment), would be the most disastrous response imaginable to rising political anger and polarisation. The status quo is exactly what is driving extremism worldwide, and populism, whatever its many flaws and risks, is right about one thing: the need for decisive action against the special interests that drive inequality and capture government policy. 

Micheal Gove is one of the few people in the present government to have woken up to these facts, bullying big companies into paying for fire safety, and showing a willingness to tear up both right and left wing orthodoxies on house building and planning, promising both to loosen planning regulation but also to start building many more council houses. 

The new political map of Britain is being drawn, and the Tories will have to move far faster than they imagine if they want to stay on it.

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