One statistic is essential to understanding the shock British election result: the turnout by people aged 18 to 24. Since 1992 only around four-in-10 young people have shown up to vote. In 2017, that number surged to six-in-10. This turnout was crucial to Labour’s high vote and why many polls, which try to predict turnout from past experience, were off.
It’s easy to point to Jeremy Corbyn’s magic money tree to explain why young people voted – particularly the costly plan to scrap university fees. However, to find the answer we must dig a little deeper.
Young people were genuinely attracted to the fact that Corbyn stood for something. Not just against something. They liked that he had values. He played down his dark past, which includes describing terrorists as his ‘friends’, and proposed an unashamedly socialist policy platform - substantially increasing the size of the state through more debt, spending, and nationalisation.
In response, one million young people registered to vote for the first time. And, according to pollster Lord Ashcroft, Labour won an extraordinary 67 per cent of those aged 18 to 24, compared to 23 per cent of the vote for those aged 65 and over.
How did Corbyn pull the youth vote and not only ruin May’s landslide but her majority altogether?
Firstly, the right have long since lost the battle of ideas in education. Corbyn provided the same socialist message that young people already hear at schools and universities. The left-wing perspective is the only acceptable viewpoint in social cirucmstances – and if you don’t hold it you either silenced or are ostracised.
Secondly, May did not stand up for an alternative set of values or present a positive vision. She refused to make a case for opportunity, prosperity and markets that have driven Britain’s economy since the 1980s, the values that have catapulted over a billion people out of poverty in the last twenty five years, and contributed to the lowest level of global inequality since the industrial revolution.
While older Brits remember the economic basket case and mass inflation before Margaret Thatcher’s reforms, today’s young do not have firsthand experience of the failures of socialism. However, May’s rhetoric, and many of her policies, accepted the socialist premise.
The Conservatives electoral lead evaporated following the announcement of their now infamous manifesto. The manifesto declared that ‘we believe in the good that government can do’ and went on to list a wide array of interventionist policies. May proposed an energy price cap, a policy labelled by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron as ‘Marxist’ just two years ago. The document also called for worker representation on boards, an ‘industrial strategy’ and a delay in the return to surplus to at least 2025. It read like a typical Labour document.
May’s ineptitude was highlighted by the embarrassing ’U-turn’ on social care policy – making a mockery of her ‘strong and stable’ slogan. Her campaign appearances were wooden: the Maybot contrasted strongly with Corbyn’s passion. With little vision, and avoiding a serious policy debate, all that remained was attacks on Corbyn that came to wear off.
The abandonment of conservative principles proved electorally toxic. Lynton Crosby, the legendary campaign strategist who won Cameron a majority in 2015 but advised rather than led this time, expressed his disquiet with the policy agenda. In response to the manifesto he’s reported to have said: ‘A Conservative Party ought to have some conservative policies.’
May was successful before the campaign when she focused on British values and her plans for a global Brexit. During the campaign May failed to make a conservative or liberal case, and is now facing a terminal leadership crisis and minority government propped up by Northern Irish unionists. What should have been an easy campaign to defeat a madman has turned into an unmitigated disaster, and her leadership is now terminal.
The parallels between May and Malcom Turnbull are vast. To appeal to the so-called pragmatic centre, Turnbull has adopted policies of the left. He’s asked the ACCC to investigate an energy price cap. He has abandoned plans to reduce government spending. He has gone after the banks. For all this, Turnbull did not receive any boost in the post-budget Newspoll.
In the end, trying to be left-lite gives no reason for people to not vote for the real thing. To win, you have to stand by your values.
Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, and is in London studying a Masters in Public Policy at the London School of Economics.
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