The Conservatives have every reason to be on cloud nine these days: they have a majority in the House of Commons (albeit a small one); they have a commanding lead in the polls more typically seen for opposition parties on the way to win the next general election; they recently won a by-election against the main opposition despite being in government; and they find themselves up against a particularly unpopular and seemingly inept opponent in the modern Labour Party.
When it comes to young people, the Conservatives rarely have things quite so easy, and are rarely the most popular party. While they tend to command more support amongst the under-25s than those parties typically seen as the champions of young people’s issues (such as the Greens), they have usually lagged well behind the Liberal Democrats (before the formation of the coalition government), and the Labour Party (after 2010). The 2015 British Election Study, for example, showed that 28% of under-25s voted for the Conservatives in the general election, compared with 44% who voted for Labour, 4% who voted for the Lib Dems, and 7% who voted for the Greens. Brexit, however, is an issue we might expect to cause some problems for the Conservatives, as they are currently supporting what many consider to be a ‘hard’ Brexit, while young people are the group most ardently opposed to leaving the EU at all.
Using YouGov’s polling since just after the referendum last year, we can see how the Conservatives’ support among young people has fared since Britain voted to leave the EU. This covers a pretty tumultuous period for the party, including the resignation of David Cameron, a controversial leadership election that resulted in Theresa May standing unopposed, and the government’s difficult job of planning for Brexit negotiations and securing support for it in Parliament. The graph below presents this data and shows that despite the upheaval of the period, Conservative support has been rather stable. Typically, around 15% of under-25s would vote for the Conservatives in an election tomorrow, and this has been the case since July 2016, with only a few short-lived deviations. There wasn’t even much of an impact on their support at the end of January, when Article 50 was supported in the House of Commons by the government and virtually every Conservative MP. The Conservatives’ support for a ‘hard’ Brexit, and any number of other challenges the party has faced since the referendum, appears to have done little (good or bad) to their support base amongst young people.
Figure One: Under-25 Support for Conservatives, Labour & Lib Dems since July 2016
This is the third in a series of blogs looking at how the support of the UK’s major political parties has fared as they each try to navigate the challenge of Brexit (the first two looked at the fortunes of Labour and the Lib Dems). A common theme in all three is that despite the hostility of the young to Brexit, it has had little impact on their political support. Jeremy Corbyn is particularly popular among the under-25s, and remains so, even though he ordered his party to support the government’s ‘hard’ Brexit regardless of whether they accepted any of Labour’s proposed changes. The Conservatives have reluctantly revealed their Brexit plans over the past eight months and each added detail has shown that they intend to have a far weaker relationship with the EU than the vast majority of young people want to see, and yet their youth support has barely changed. The Liberal Democrats are the only ones to oppose Brexit in its entirety, promising to keep the UK in the EU, and yet their support among the under-25s continues to languish behind that of the pro-Brexit Tory and Labour parties.
That the majority of young people are hostile to Brexit, would rather see the UK remain a member of the EU, and believe Brexit is the most important issue facing the country, is clear. What is surprising is that their political preferences are not being substantially affected by these beliefs or the responses of the political parties to them. Brexit is widely assumed to be the issue that will determine the outcome of the next general election, and probably every local election and by-election between now and 2020; the fact that the preferences of the most pro-EU group of voters in the electorate appear to be largely unaffected by it suggests it might not be as significant to the formation of the next government than many think. Alternatively, Brexit might just not be that important for young people’s party support, in which case, other issues that are probably struggling to receive any attention or media coverage in the current Brexit saturated political environment could be more influential in determining how young people will vote.
Young People & Brexit is an interdisciplinary study of how young people in the UK feel about and are responding to the most significant policy issue of this Parliament: the UK’s exit from the European Union. For more information about the project please click here.