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Ideas, Please
January/February 2014

 Liberté, egalité, fraternité Mr Boles's plan is not

The belief that the Conservative Party is "alien" to young voters is yet another case of the Tories' long preoccupation with the apparent appeal of the Left among the under-25s, of whom I am one. With this preoccupation come repeated attempts at "modernisation".

It is unsurprising, then, that Tory moderniser Nick Boles MP recently proposed a solution. Studies show my generation to be markedly more liberal than earlier ones. So, says Boles, the Conservative Party must become economically and socially more liberal. It is an enticing argument; however, it swiftly descends into difficulty.

According to Boles, "To be a liberal in the UK is to believe that the established order and the democratic institutions that we have inherited...need to be defended." The problem with this definition of liberalism is that while it is no doubt a prerequisite for the true realisation of freedom, it does little to capture the essence of freedom itself. 

Boles is not wrong to talk about the Tories as the natural party of freedom and the potential appeal of liberalism to young voters. His error lies in posing an argument that conforms to the very structures that form the barrier between my generation and political participation.

As recently as the Thatcher era, political parties existed for a defined purpose, an idea. Their policies were an articulation of the best way, within the present constraints, to fulfil that purpose. Yet, more recently, what were once the means have increasingly become the ends.

Our present "established order" spins a narrative of institutions. Great ideas that once defined governments, mobilised armies or founded nations are thrown around on the recommendation of that day's press strategy or PMQs cheat sheet. Rarely are they anything more than an ephemeral attack on what "the other lot" are saying. Liberalism as a defence of this does little to inspire. Liberté, egalité, fraternité this is not.

It is such institutions that are alien to young people. This is reflected in low election turnouts and the malaise is spreading. Institutions are a reality of any political system but they should not be its essence. That is for ideas. Ideas inspire, captivate and motivate. Ideas appeal to the young.

The Conservative Party is right to look nervously at the polls that recently placed Labour 23 points ahead among under-25s, but wrong to attribute its unpopularity to a fear of Tories as "aliens". After all, we polled neck and neck in 2010. 

The problem is not the party — it is the message. Labour is simply better at articulating ideas, helped by the freedom from scrutiny that Opposition brings. Their existence is defined by ideals like fairness and equality. These ideas are not intrinsically more appealing to young voters, but they are the only clear ideas on offer. 

The Tories must once again speak of ideas, and Boles is right that freedom is our greatest cause. I disagree with those commentators who remarked of Boles's speech that winning the votes of the young can only be done at the expense of the votes of the old. The beauty of an idea as strong as freedom is that it can be used to frame our party's diverse views. The proponents of gay marriage can sit happily alongside those who espouse our withdrawal from Europe. Both talk of freedom.

Modernisation, then, is not about pushing one outlook over another, but about acceptance of party as secondary to the ideas it propagates. The Conservative Party as the ideological advocate of freedom has room for optimism. It has the scope to become the natural partner of the young, who embrace the freedom that life has to offer as they embark on their path in the world. The party is indeed no monolith, but provides a common purpose. It is the job of the modernisers to define that purpose.

January 8th, 2014
8:01 PM
Hi Harriet - As somebody who also fits the under-25 label, I have to respectfully disagree with one of your points here. I really don't think Labour are any better than the Tories at articulating their ideas. Even if you compare the 'intellectuals' in each of the parties - say, Stewart Wood and Jon Cruddas compared with Jesse Norman and Daniel Hannan - I find Labour's ideas blurrier and less convincing. I think the left generally finds it easier to convince the public that its motives are more immediately benevolent - 'fairness', 'equality', 'helping the vulnerable', 'strong public services' all sound great, in principle. And it's easy then to paint the 'other side' as being, as it were by lack of association, in favour of 'unfairness', 'inequality', 'hurting the vulnerable', 'undermining public services'. These all sound far more emotionally damning than do 'fiscal irresponsibility' or 'concentrating too much power in the state', or any of the criticisms targeted at Labour. So I do think 'equality' and 'fairness' are easier to sell. They sound warmer than 'responsibility' and 'cautious observance of tradition'. I think once the argument is reduced to taglines and soundbites, the left will almost always have the advantage. Rather than change their message, I think the Tories need to create a cultural environment in which they have the space to expand on their ideas - once Norman gets going about Burkean Conservatism, it makes perfect sense, but it can't be so easily turned into a soundbite. To put it simply, 'we're investing lots of money in helping the poor' sounds a lot more appealing than 'investing money in the poor isn't always the most effective means of helping them, it often requires something subtler'. The latter requires an elucidation that the current climate denies.

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