The Tories have a problem. A recent report by centre-right think tank Onward found that just 21% of 25-40 year-olds would vote Conservative if an election were held tomorrow. This isn’t something they look likely to grow out of, either. Millennials, in fact, “are the first generation not to become rightwing as they age,” the report concluded.
This wasn’t always the case. While the Conservatives topped Labour by nine points among 18 to 24-year-olds and 11 points among 25 to 34-year-olds in the 1983 election, by 2019, Jeremy Corbyn’s party led among those cohorts by 43 and 24 points respectively.
Yet while the Tories are struggling to win millennial and gen Z voters, the right’s conveyor belt of academics, journalists and influencers continues. These figures don’t speak for their generation, of course – but in public life, they remain conspicuous.
Take Darren Grimes – often mocked by leftwingers, but certainly capable of garnering attention. Then there’s Tom Harwood, who has transitioned from a gopher at Guido Fawkes to becoming a serious broadcast journalist, making an impressive appearance on BBC Question Time earlier this year. In fact, beyond Harwood, GB News is grooming a whole generation of rightwingers, like Emily Carver and Patrick Christys, for broadcast media dominance. For all the talk of a Conservative collapse among younger voters, the right is still producing its thought-leaders of tomorrow.
While the left obviously lacks the resources of the radical right (you can help change that by supporting Novara Media), a similar infrastructure has emerged over the last decade which means its ideas will only become more mainstream. But the development of these two polarised eco-spheres raises an important question: where’s the equivalent for the centre?
Centrists, of course, claim to exist between competing ‘extremes’, and therefore don’t need to generate ideas of their own to the same extent. Yet there’s also a genuine vacuum when it comes to liberal individuals – in journalism, politics and ideas – who are capable of reaching a wider audience. Our era’s equivalent to the ‘gang of four’ – the group of MPs who broke away from Labour to found the Social Democratic Party in 1981 – included non-entities like Mike Gapes and Angela Smith (even if the media tried to puff them up). And despite the Brexit saga, no liberal under 50 has built a noteworthy political profile in the last decade. Indeed, many who worked for the Liberal Democrats in the 2010s left the field after 2015, from Danny Alexander, the youngest member of the coalition ‘quad’ and now vice president of the Asian Development Bank, to Nick Clegg, vice president at Meta. These people delivered austerity and then jumped ship to the private sector. It’s the same for their old advisers too. Simply put, they no longer seem especially interested in shaping the nation’s political life.
In fact, the centre’s most effective media figure is Alastair Campbell. But while the former spin doctor enjoys extraordinary reach, through both legacy media and his own podcast, he’s also 66. The same is true of Gary Lineker, 62, and to a lesser extent James O’Brien, a comparatively youthful 51. These are influential figures today, certainly – but they won’t be liberalism’s torchbearers in the decades to come. The most charismatic voices of the centre peaked around a quarter of a century ago, and liberal influencers of tomorrow are nowhere to be found. Why?
Part of the answer lies in a basic tension between the ethical commitments of liberalism and its practice. Belief in progress, a key tenet of liberalism in Cobden and Gladstone’s era, has been replaced by apathy – particularly since the financial crisis of 2008. This was captured by one popular slogan in the aftermath of the 2016 US election: “If Hillary was president, we’d be at brunch”. In a similar vein, Coco Khan, one of the co-hosts on Pod Save the UK, told her show that what she wanted from politics was “a system I can forget about”. Liberals do still believe in progress – they just believe it somehow happens independently of social movements or anyone actually doing anything.
What’s more, liberals don’t view politics as something which emerges from competing forces within civil society. This stands in contrast to the left, which grasped the importance of shaping the wider culture a century ago, and the right, who are today’s greatest inheritors of that insight (both Murray Rothbard and Steve Bannon described themselves as right wing Leninists, while Dominic Cummings is in a similar mould). This mindset is what drove the formation of a cluster of rightwing think tanks and campaigns (particularly Brexit) which were crucial in shaping recent political history. For liberals, meanwhile, the very notion of a wider political strategy – with large numbers of people involved in collective action – is something to be mocked. Despite claims of personal virtue, their position is essentially the ironic distance of early 2010s Vice – only without the fun, sailor tattoos and venture capital.
Then there’s what centrism actually has to offer. The absence of a theory of change, or a political programme beyond ‘getting the Tories out’ (which is fine until the Tories are, you know, out), is also at odds with an economic model which has failed to deliver rising living standards for 15 years. Why would a curious teenager, ambitious 20-something or radicalised person in middle or older age be attracted by more of the same? Even among the white-shirted think tank wannabes, few will want to intern for organisations indifferent to whether or not they rent until they die.
Rising inequality, demographic ageing and accelerating inequality will all make huge demands of any Labour government. Meanwhile, the Tories are set to morph into something we’ve never seen in British politics – essentially a National Conservative party – and younger voters will continue to move left. With millennials failing to become more rightwing with age, and liberalism failing to reproduce itself as a movement, the platitudes of moderation won’t cut it. If the left has ideas and material conditions on its side, and the right has money, one has to ask what will power the centre ground in the years to come. On personnel, policies and organisations, the chest appears empty, meaning the ‘moderate’ politics of the near future won’t just be ‘post ideological’, but post democratic too. A utopia not only bereft of values, but without believers too.