Senior Tories are urging Rishi Sunak to use his next manifesto to address their party’s alarming unpopularity among younger voters, amid increasing concern that the Conservatives could be “sunk” without urgent action to win over the under-40s.
With mounting anxiety among moderate Tories that the party is failing to prioritise policies on net zero and help for renters that could attract younger voters, Tom Tugendhat, the cabinet minister who is among the figureheads of the party’s liberal wing, has become one of the most senior figures to publicly urge a rethink.
In comments to a gathering of the moderate Tory Reform Group, the security minister warned that the party can no longer “sit around” and assume that voters will simply turn to the party as they get older – an assumption he warned may no longer be true.
“There isn’t a Conservative in the country that doesn’t believe the opportunity for people to have a home, a family – whatever that family looks like – is vital and we need to be the party of aspiration, helping people achieve that ideal with Conservative policies,” he told the gathering last week.
He added: “There are areas where we can be doing more, especially when it comes to young people and the next generation.
“We need to ensure that young people have those opportunities to help them get ahead and we can’t leave them behind. Let’s look at what we offer to the under-30s, especially when it comes to any future manifesto.
“There once was a time when people said that the electorate become Conservative at 40. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true any more but we can’t sit around and just wait for that to happen.”
Tugendhat said any offer to young voters had to include sticking with the party’s commitments to achieving net zero by 2050, despite increasing unease over the policy on the Tory right. “We know the type of policies young people want to see from us, too – we know they care about the environment and as Conservatives this echoes our own commitment to conservation,” he said.
“That’s one of the reasons why we need to keep the green policies, which we can see creating thousands of jobs and boosting our greener infrastructure.”
His comments come as the latest Opinium poll for the Observer reveals Labour maintains a 15-point lead over the Tories with a crucial party conference season now rapidly approaching. The results indicate that Labour has a 46-point lead among voters aged between 18 and 34. Opinium polls over the last year have regularly recorded a Labour lead among the age group of 40 points or more.
Tugendhat’s views reflect wider concerns among MPs. Former minister Stephen Hammond, the MP for Wimbledon, said: “It is difficult to disagree with Tom’s comments. If we don’t have policies that resonate with the next generation of voters we are sunk. We need to build more, drive environmentally friendly growth and [create] the skills for the jobs in the tech world of the future.”
Liberal Tories have been pushing hard for the party to show more enthusiasm for pro-green policies, after Sunak recently criticised a “hair shirt” approach to tackling the climate crisis.
The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has also vowed not to adopt Joe Biden’s “subsidy bowl” approach, referring to the president’s Inflation Reduction Act designed to help the US achieve a net zero carbon economy.
There has also been frustration over a delay to renter reforms that would have handed tenants in England more protection.
Meanwhile, Sunak is also under pressure from the right of the party not to abandon the pensions triple lock, with the Treasury understood to be exploring ways for a temporary tweak to the policy that could save £1bn.
Siobhan Aarons, national chair of the Tory Reform Group, said: “More needs to be done to address intergenerational unfairness. This doesn’t mean we have to scrap the triple lock to punish one set of voters to support another, but we must show we understand the challenges facing those in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
“It is by no means a coincidence that people are more likely to vote Conservative now when they turn 50. What is our offer to younger generations? It cannot just be more of the same.
“Any sensible manifesto next year needs policies focused on housing, rental reform, childcare costs, infrastructure investment across the UK (not just London) and greener policies. After 13 years, this government needs to be bolder in driving jobs and economic growth which will benefit generations of voters.”
Concerns about the offer to younger voters have been rumbling all year among Tory moderates. Bim Afolami, a former Tory vice-chair until he resigned during Boris Johnson’s prime ministership, warned that the issue could be “existential” for the party.
He was speaking as part of a report by the centre-right Onward thinktank in May that showed that nearly two-thirds of millennials said the Tories deserved to lose the next election. It concluded that those aged between 25 and 40 saw the Tories as dishonest, incompetent and out of touch.
While there is a push to focus on young voters in the next manifesto, the issue is a long-running one. Even in the party’s clear win at the last election, the Tories only secured 19% support among 18 to 24-year-olds.
While an ageing population and huge support among older voters meant the lack of support from the young did not stop the Tories winning a majority, voters aged 40 and under could cast more votes than baby boomers at next year’s election.