Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Blog

Where Next for Conservatism? The New Political Divide is Age

David Willetts


Alvaro Reyes

| 7 mins read

The capacity to appeal to both the principles of freedom and belonging whilst shifting the balance between them is key to the long-term political success of the Conservatives. Their extraordinary tactical flexibility and pragmatism was captured in a conversation I had with Sir Dennis Thatcher shortly after the Conservative landslide defeat of 1997. I asked him what he thought we needed to do to win. He replied: ‘We must get back to basic Conservative principles—but don't ask me what they are’.

Now, the Conservative Party has once again shown its agility in embracing Brexit and forging a new electoral coalition.

Brexit and the remaking of the Conservative coalition

Just as Thatcherism was a reaction to economic and political failures of the 1970s, so Brexit is a reaction to the decade of low growth and low earnings, combined with austerity in public spending following the financial crash of 2008–9. And just as in the 1970s, the left saw this crisis of capitalism as its opportunity and Labour moved leftwards to Jeremy Corbyn, who looked for a moment as if he might be the beneficiary of these trends. But once again, the opportunity has instead been seized by the Conservatives. The alternative Brexit account of what had gone wrong has prevailed. Brussels over-regulated and held business back; it cost money which we could otherwise spend on the NHS; and it obliged us to let in migrants who drove down wages and increased pressure on public services. Those assertions may not be justified by the evidence, but overall they constituted a clear intuitive narrative.

The Conservative Party absorbed these beliefs, drawing on arguments and attitudes deep in the Conservative tradition hailing from a time where Whig grandees were opposed by far less grand local Tory squires. We are seeing again today's Conservative Party embracing the populism of ‘real people’ versus an out of touch ‘woke’ elite. It is an example of the Tory party's extraordinary capacity to cast itself as outsider even when in government.

Where next for conservatism? The new political divide is age

Historic strands in conservatism such as these are all precursors to today's Tory strategy of appealing to the ‘red wall’. Initially, Conservatives faced a major threat from Nigel Farage's UKIP, which could have split the Tory vote. That was the key factor leading David Cameron in 2013 to promise a referendum. He followed the classic Conservative strategy of denying political space to a separate party out on the right.

The Conservative share of the vote has increased successively in every election since the landslide defeat of 1997—initially rather modestly and from a very low base, but sustaining the trend over six elections is still an extraordinary electoral achievement.

The two-party system is back—at least in England. Brexit helped dislodge a group of predominantly working class voters from Labour. UKIP was by 2015 ‘the most working-class party in Britain’. Brexit then moved them on to support the Conservatives.

A new Tory electorate has emerged—older, predominantly white, less educated and living outside the big cities. And age has replaced class as the crucial political divide. Now, a political party can focus on older voters provided that it continues to recruit new voters as they go through the life cycle. One could argue that forming this new election winning coalition is a real political success and simply holding on to the votes it has secured is the right approach. Levelling up is clearly crucial for this. But politics is dynamic. Having achieved striking success as a political project, where does conservatism go next?

It is risky to appeal to an ageing cohort of voters without recruiting from succeeding generations. The Conservative Party needs to appeal to younger voters, and offering the prospect of property ownership would be one way to do this.

Research findings

We summarised the change in a Resolution Foundation research paper:

That's not to say that class and income are no longer important in determining party choice—they are. Indeed, to some extent what we are seeing is the dynamics of class and affluence becoming realigned according to age.

This can be shown by looking at the average age of constituencies which ‘has become more strongly correlated with the vote share of the two main parties. The strength of the relationship increased particularly markedly for the Conservatives between 2015 and 2017. By 2017, the average age of constituencies explained almost half the variation in the two main parties’ vote shares.’ This is reinforced by growing demographic divergence between constituencies—which is all part of Britain being more divided by age: ‘In 2002, 35 constituencies in England and Wales had an average age 10 per cent higher than the national average, and 42 had an average age 10 per cent lower than the national average. Roll forward to 2017, and those figures had increased to 81 and 71, respectively.’

Spreading property ownership to younger generations

The key challenge for the Conservative Party now is to reach out to and recruit younger voters who heavily voted Remain in the EU referendum—that means voters who are younger and better educated. Losing them risks declining support for Conservatives in London and prosperous parts of the South East.

The shift from class to age in voting behaviour reflects the biggest change in the structure of our economy over the same period. The value of our aggregate wealth, the assets we own used to run at about three times GDP, our annual national income. But over the past twenty years that has shot up to reach seven times GDP. So, wealth matters much more than it did. And it is above all in the hands of the Baby Boomers.

Spreading property ownership to the younger generation is, therefore, key to the future of the Conservative Party. There is a positive narrative here. Older people do actually care about the prospects of the younger generation and are worried that they have deteriorated.

The social contract underpinning a society is a contract between the generations. Fairness between the generations matters to us whatever our age. Properly discharging our obligation to the younger generation is the right thing to do—and it is politically prudent too.

  • David Willetts

    David Willetts

    David Willetts is a Conservative Party politician, life peer, and academic and is currently Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation.

    Articles by David Willetts
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