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Artillery Row

The grey vote will not save the Tories

Appealing to older voters is failing as an electoral strategy

When it comes to attracting the elderly, the Conservative Party now ranks alongside bingo halls and graveyards. For decades, Tory fortunes have relied on the so-called “grey vote”, but this election campaign has only served to highlight just how much the Party relies on its baby boomer base. 

According to YouGov, just 8 per cent of voters under-50 now support the Conservatives, putting them level with Reform and behind the Greens amongst that group. It might amuse some readers to know that YouGov’s popularity tracker reports that about 9 per cent of the public has a favourable opinion of Prince Andrew. Auspicious company indeed. 

The Tory Party’s base is now so old that, since 2019, about 1 in 10 Conservative voters have literally died. Yet despite these terminal fundamentals, there is an unspoken sense amongst political commentators that the Tories will somehow turn things around. After all, this is the party of Disraeli, and Thatcher, and Cameron, an election-winning machine that constantly reinvents itself in order to cling on to power. They’ve done it before, they can do it again. 

But why should we assume that the future will always be like the past? Today’s crop of Conservatives — certainly those regarded as “senior figures” within the party — largely lack the ambition and ability required to tackle a problem of this scale. This issue has been brewing for a long time, and yet precious little has been done to address it; a few cultural trinkets and a vague commitment to housebuilding won’t be sufficient to win over a generation that has largely come to despise the Party. Many right-wing young people now wish to see the Party destroyed altogether, in the hopes that a more radical, effective alternative might rise from the ashes. 

And it’s easy to see why working-age people are so resentful of the Conservatives.  The next generation of voters has watched Britain stumble along the path of precipitous decline for their entire lives, lurching from one crisis to the next while the economy stagnates and public services crumble. House prices have skyrocketed in recent decades, earnings have been stagnant, and the graduate wage premium has all but disappeared. Wages are subject to eye-watering taxation, while private rents continue to climb despite the fact that nearly half of all social housing in London is occupied by people born abroad. That’s before we even mention lockdown. 

In the first few weeks of the campaign, the Tories have pledged to reinstate a watered-down form of national service, which would see young people mobilised in order to prop up our failing social care system. This burdensome imposition, combined with new plans for a “quadruple lock” on the already unsustainable state pension, reveals a striking lack of awareness within the Party to the scale of this existential threat. 

By chasing the grey vote so aggressively over the next five weeks, Sunak and the Conservatives risk alienating today’s young voters for decades to come. As people age, their voting habits become entrenched. Cast your ballot for the same party four or five times, and you’ll soon start to identify as a “lifelong supporter”. Today’s 30 year olds are tomorrow’s 50 year olds — by the time that they reach old age, many millennials will never have voted Conservative in their lives. 

The great tragedy in all of this is that the Conservative strategy of pandering to the gerontocracy doesn’t really seem to be working

This “cohort effect” will only be compounded by declining homeownership, delayed family formation, and reduced savings amongst working-age people. All of these things traditionally provided a stake in society, engendering an appreciation of stability which naturally inclined voters towards conservatism. Why should we expect people to vote Conservative if they have nothing to conserve? Without the opportunity to put down these roots, many voters will continue to support parties of the left well into their old age. If the party fails to act soon, this could be an extinction-level event.

The great tragedy in all of this is that the Conservative strategy of pandering to the gerontocracy doesn’t really seem to be working. Polls show the Party stagnating, or moving backwards. There have been a few murmurs about increased support amongst right-wing voters over the age of 65, but any improvements amongst this cohort seem to have been offset by losses elsewhere. 

For the Reform-facing pensioners that the Conservatives appear to be trying to squeeze, immigration is the issue of the day. Without a credible plan to stop illegal migration and slash the number of people coming here through legal routes, it’s difficult to see how Sunak can prize these coveted voters away from Farage and Tice. Doing so would require acknowledging the party’s failures over the past few years, and compensating for this weak record with an ambitious, substantive pitch that goes beyond anything currently on offer.

If it does want to win with young people, the Conservatives need a bold “Hail Mary” — if not during the election campaign, then in the immediate aftermath. France’s Marine Le Pen managed to stir up enthusiasm for her once-geriatric Front National by promising to exempt under-30s from paying income tax. In New Zealand, the right-wing coalition swept back into power last year by actively promoting young talent, promising to cut tax, build more houses, and slash red tape. Much has been made of the progress made by Canada’s Pierre Poilievre, whose pitch to young voters involves a laser-focus on housebuilding. With so little on offer from the other parties, a few ambitious promises for working-age voters could see the party pick up momentum quickly. 

In the meantime, Sunak’s team ought to recognise that their “core vote” strategy will only work if they’re willing to address the question du jour. A bold pitch on migration starts with an acknowledgement of recent failures and a recognition that legal migration is a far bigger issue than small boat crossings. The recent recommendations put forward by Robert Jenrick and Neil O’Brien provide a solid practical foundation for intelligent immigration restrictions. 

If the campaign so far is anything to judge by, this will amount to little more than fantasy. We should instead expect to see a few technocratic tweaks at the margins of these big issues, and a few more attempts to win over disgruntled pensioners, perhaps by promising to cap the price of penny sweets or pledging to bring back proper bin men. Stare at this election campaign for long enough, and you just might fool yourself into believing that the Conservative Party is trying to lose.

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