The generation game

Rachel Sylvester’s piece in the Times yesterday portrayed the coming election as a ‘generation game’ where Conservatives court the grey vote, while Labour targets younger people.

She’s right that there is a growing generational divide on certain issues. Younger voters are, for example, overwhelmingly pro-immigration and in favour of staying in the EU, while most older voters want to leave, and are sceptical about the benefits immigration has brought.

However, she’d be wrong to assume that the parties only have policies that talk to their generational base. The Conservatives would be missing a trick if they ignored young voters, who are largely undecided, and not nearly as left-wing as people tend to assume.

For starters, Generation Y have a strong belief in personal responsibility; they are sceptical about welfare and the capacity of the state to provide for people. They want a politics that feels closer to them and more local. There is much to align them with Conservative Party values.

Moreover, the Tories have plenty of policies that should appeal to young people: funding three million apprenticeships, building 100,000 new homes for first time buyers, Rent to Buy, and the new loans scheme for postgraduate students.

Cameron’s more liberal attitude to social issues also plays well with young people. The decision to drive same sex marriage through parliament, in spite of significant opposition from his own party, reflects this.

Finally, our research shows that young people don’t just care about these “youth issues”. Sylvester cites the protection of pensions as part of the Tories’ Fifty Shades of Grey strategy. In fact, young people are surprisingly supportive of policies that benefit pensioners, compared to other forms of welfare.

The Tories’ biggest challenge convincing young people is not their policies, but campaign focus. The threat of UKIP risks shifting the election message onto issues where Tory policy is less in sync with most young people: Europe and immigration. Achieving this balancing act of holding off UKIP but avoiding alienating a younger, more liberal generation is a major test.

Labour starts from a strong position when you look at the voting intentions of young people. Their task is to ensure young people turn out, and to demonstrate it won’t take their support for granted. Ed Miliband’s party already has several policies which fit the bill: a jobs guarantee, raising the national minimum wage, and extra funding for the NHS. These all play extremely well with most young people. The energy price freeze and a promise of market reform should win support among the large percentage of young people concerned about their living costs.

Labour’s biggest problem among young people is marking themselves out as different. They are seen very much as part of the old political establishment, not different enough from the Conservatives to be worth voting for. Miliband must be bold if he is to keep and turn out the youth vote; recent polls suggest there is a risk of significant numbers of young people turning to the Greens.

Both parties should remember that the mantra “the medium is the message”. Both have policies that should appeal to young people, but are failing to engage. We’ve found that young people are particularly put off by the lack of diversity in politics, particularly the lack of politicians from working class backgrounds. Both parties should ensure candidates and MPs given the most media exposure are from a diverse range of backgrounds, in particular ‘working class’ candidates.

Just as importantly, politicians need to start engaging in new ways. Most MPs are on Twitter, but many don’t use it effectively as an engagement tool. All MPs communicate with their constituents by email, but few hold internet-based surgeries.

The ‘ground game’ of politics still matters: voters appreciate real conversations. But social media provides a new space between doorstep conversations and the traditional broadcast media that can bring a new dimension. The days when knocking on a few doors before election day was enough to turn out your voters is gone: the sooner politicians and parties realise this, the better.