Voices: Where have all the young Tories gone?

Much mirth among the political twittering classes this week, as the director of the once youth-led progressive Conservative think tank Bright Blue, Ryan Shorthouse, announced he is standing down.

It’s been almost a decade since he founded the group, together with other then 20-something Tories who, in the twilight of the hoody-hugging era, felt like the future faces of a modernised centre-right. At the time, if you were broadly on the left, this was uncomfortable: Bright Blue’s ideas seemed attractive to a broad base of voters, and were being taken seriously.

Events at party conferences in the early 2010s discussed once radical social policies being brought under the banner of Conservatism. And with Labour in turmoil, there was no counter force. Momentum, the grassroots movement which came a few years later, was not an equivalent. Government was a long way away.

As he steps back, Shorthouse and his ideas couldn’t be more divorced from the parliamentary Conservative Party. Thanks to Brexit, the global forces of populism and the pressures of migration, Conservatism in Britain became something very different. In a public exit interview with The Guardian, he lambasts the Tories for abandoning millennial voters on every issue, from childcare to housing to tolerating the creation of a low-wage workforce.

“They’ve had 12 years to fix these things and the cost of renting and owning a home is as high as ever,” he complains. “The costs of starting a family, particularly for women’s wages, but also the cost of childcare, is very punishing.”

Shorthouse also rules out ever becoming an MP, a career path previously so ubiquitous as to be a bit of a Westminster joke.

That’s at the heart of the snark about his “announcement”. Big loss, people say sarcastically. Many accuse policy advisers in the small, centre-dwelling think tanks of Westminster of being transparent careerists, desperate to curry favour with rising stars and abandoning a sinking administration. They expect to see the Bright Blue crew cosying up to Keir Starmer in an attempt to drag the next government towards the right of the centre.

Maybe, but that’s not all that’s happening. Sure, Shorthouse was never an intellectual powerhouse. The influence that his think tank had on Conservative policy waned even before Corbyn took control of Labour. Shorthouse is only in his thirties; he is wise to plan the second chapter of his career.

But his departure is not an irrelevance; it is more significant than the announcements that former minister Chloe Smith and William Wragg, a sitting MP, will step down at the next election – touted as the beginning of an “exodus” from Conservative politics.

He is correct, however, that his liberal faction has been talking about the issues that dog millennial voters for well over 15 years. Back in 2014, when Bright Blue was establishing itself, I was covering housing and wage issues regularly, and the think tank had much to say about it. This is not a question of the rats abandoning the ship. It’s been years since these ideas were expelled by the Conservative Party, rather than the other way around.

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The Tories gave up listening to the young centre-right somewhere around the time that Cameron agreed to a referendum on the EU, and the party has made no attempt to bridge that gap in the intervening years.

If Shorthouse is leaving, where is his replacement? Where are all the young (and not even so young) Tories? Membership and engagement with the party among these age groups is dwindling faster than Conservative vote share under 40 – which is, as is well evidenced by all the major polling organisations, disappearing.

With no policy thinkers working on the ambitions of young middle-income voters within, there is little hope for a late restoration of trust within this crucial section of the electorate. There has been no succession policy, and no thought about what future Conservatism might look like.

If you align yourself on the left, there are reasons to be cheerful about Labour’s medium-term prospects with such a dearth of Tory talent awaiting their chance at power. But remember: it’s easy to influence when your party is on the up. It’s harder to retain that position when it becomes too comfortable in itself.