The “Grey Wall” that was the battalions of ladies and gentlemen of a certain age who used to nod enthusiastically at Tory Party Conference – have they, er, … nodded off permanently? The hall is empty. The politicians who are there make sure they are snapped with younger members. Some sort of consultant must have told the party that they didn’t want to look old and past it, I guess, but the political exhaustion is showing. There is a void where the voters should be.
Everyone knows the Tory vote is ageing. Their vote is strongest amongst the over-65s, weakest amongst young people, yet since 2010 this divide has become even more polarised. Hardly anyone under 25 says they will vote Tory and a lot more middle-aged people (45-54) say they will vote for Labour. The cliché that people become more Right-wing as they get older is increasingly creaky.
If the key determinant to how we vote is not income, or geography, but age, we must find a better way of talking about it. It is the fault of pollsters that a nuanced conversation does not happen. Red Walls vs Blue Walls. Leave vs Remain. North vs South. Old vs Young. Is this how it really works?
The Grey Wall, as it is conjured up, consists of selfish property-owning pensioners or those retired on decent pensions and who play golf 24/7. Who are these people? Do they live alone? Do they ever require social care?
These young resentful folk who cannot afford ridiculous rents and have to go and live at home even after university, do they hate their own parents? Of course not! We increasingly live in multi-generational, extended families because we have to.
The generations are not set against each other but intimately connected. But a raft of policies that has played to the old and to the short-term has been at the expense of the young in all sorts of ways.
The lives of young people during the pandemic were curtailed to save the lives of older ones. Raises in national insurance mean that those who work are paying for those who no longer do but the biggest issue and the one that the Tories have not begun to tackle is housing. Squabbling about inheritance tax must look like an utter joke to Generation Rent. Reneging on commitment to net zero, doing nothing on crumbling infrastructure, letting childcare costs soar, do Tories think that the under-40s don’t notice? Don’t care? That they will magically become conservative as they age? Why would they?
In fact, without any prospect of owning property, zero-hours contracts, a constant narrative of Broken Britain and inflation, a lot of women have just stopped having children. The cost of living crisis is a cost of childbearing crisis.
It is not as though the younger generation want to see older ones in poverty, it is that every policy is geared to shore up those who already have wealth. Houses have not been built. The rental market has not been reformed. All this has a knock-on effect. Parents of grown-up kids now find themselves making sacrifices to help them to get a home of their own.
The Tory think tanks know this. Nearly two thirds of 25 to 40-year-olds feel the Tories deserve to lose the next election. These have been referred to as Missing Millennials yet somehow the party do not seem to understand who they need to attract.
Either cynically they are counting on young people not bothering to vote or they are really clueless. Carving up the population into those they think they have to throw “red meat” to and those they do not involves conjuring up imaginary communities of motorists or landlords or demonising shirkers (again) or of course the ultimate bogeyman of the immigrant. None of this is actual policy that will take us forward, none of this is hopeful. Social mobility has already stalled and now it is stopped dead if the only way for it to even stabilise is via inheritance. You can mouth the word “growth” all you like but that is an abstract aspiration in a world where a huge number of working people have just been priced out of being able to get a mortgage.
We watch it happening to our children. The Grey Wall, even when it dyes its hair, is not a pile of isolated bricks. We want our children to have at least what we had, not less of it. You would have to be fabulously wealthy not to ever have to worry about that.
The Tory Party is out of touch even with a basic idea of who it represents as it sits in rooms applauding Liz Truss alongside Farage.
The party that will win the next election has to offer a future, one that connects to those under 40, not just to those whose best years have gone. I simply do not understand how older generations think they can ignore younger ones politically and get away with it. Real life does not work this way. Maybe, as Galbraith said, Conservatism really is just “the search for a superior moral reason for selfishness” even if such selfishness means making the life of generations to come more difficult. That is as snappy a slogan as the current one.