The iron law of Conservatism has broken. (Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)

June 14, 2023   5 mins

“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” This iron law of conservatism, falsely attributed to Winston Churchill and countless others, has nonetheless held true for decades. But that appears to be shifting: not only have Tory millennials become an endangered species, but Brits are no longer moving to the Right as they get older. According to one recent YouGov poll. just 6% of 18-24 year olds would vote Tory if an election was held tomorrow, a figure that rises to a measly 10% for 25-49 year olds.

Two explanations are offered for this trend. The first has its roots in 2010. Since then, this theory holds, we have seen the end of Education Maintenance Allowance, the doubling of student fees, the growing inaccessibility of the housing market to those without inherited wealth, and, of course, Brexit. The under-50s neither voted for this Tory policy platform nor stand to benefit from it. They are unlikely to reward a party that appears to want to prolong their insecurity; their refusal to drift Right with age, then, is a result of their material conditions.

The second explanation is longer term and comes down to shifting values. Its roots are much deeper, dating back to the battle for Hampstead during the general Election of 1966, when the north London constituency returned a Labour MP for the first time. “In an earlier era, it would have been unthinkable that Labour could win so middle-class a seat,” writes the geo-demographic expert Richard Webber in The Predictive Postcode. In the 50 years since, “there has been a huge growth in the size, confidence, and influence of this particular geo-demographic group. A radical minority, once fabled for its eccentric habits — shopping at Habitat, reading Private Eye, wearing sandals, eating muesli, and supporting human rights — 
 has now come to dominate large swathes of inner London.”

The academic study of values looks at the underlying motivations and unmet psychological needs which drive individuals across societies. A range of different models exist, but all identify a similar long-term pattern: as economies grow and education levels rise, the values of the population edge towards some variation of “post-materialism”. This term was coined by Ronald Inglehart, founder of the World Values Survey, to describe the tendency to prioritise principles such as self-expression and personal autonomy over financial considerations. The 1966 Hampstead result was an early indicator of post-materialist values taking root in the UK, and since then, they have become far more widespread.

What does this shift mean in practice? Those with post-materialist values often place ethics and inner fulfilment ahead of more obvious economic interests at the ballot box. Their values are expressed through concerns about equality, freedom of speech and the environment; through a dedication to larger-than-self causes and to internationalist or universalist ideas about national borders; and through a tendency to agree with statements along the lines of “ideas are more important than money”.

The idea here is not simply that everyone who reaches a certain level of resource security will immediately move towards post-materialism. People’s values are rooted in both psychology and life experiences, and they change only slowly, over time. A pensioner raised in an era of poverty and rationing may see politics in terms of protecting and conserving resources, despite now having the material security of home ownership. Conversely, a graduate who has spent their formative years in social circles which emphasise ethics and freedom of expression will usually retain these values, even as they struggle to pay the rent.

Even so, post-materialists now comprise a large part of the electorate — rising, according an IPPR paper from the early 2010s, from 19% of the population in 1973 to 38% in 2012. This has created a headache for all mainstream politicians, but especially for those on the Right. Of course, post-materialists are not all social justice activists, nor are they all explicitly Left-wing; they may not even be that exercised about party politics. But progressive parties do represent a far more natural home for them, and so Right-of-centre movements have to work harder to win their votes.

David Cameron’s Conservative Party appeared to acknowledge this. And while few post-materialists will have had much love for the coalition government, there was a concerted effort in to keep them on board. Mainly this came down to tone, but it was also clear in specific policies, such as support for gay marriage.

The Leave vote in 2016 changed this. The Tories realised they could use the large and highly visible presence of post-materialists as populist leverage. They could aim their guns at liberal elites or “woke” youngsters and build a new voter coalition, containing everyone who felt abandoned or confused by the post-materialist shift. Strategists such as Dominic Cummings reasoned that post-materialists were an electoral minority, and an inefficiently distributed one at that, prone to congregating in cities. There was little to be lost by antagonising them. Indeed, getting a reaction was part of the point.

This plan had no immediately obvious downsides from a Conservative perspective. And it was easy for them to exploit it thanks to the antics of some on the progressive Left, who were often happy to take the bait. Their success was such that the average post-materialist will have spent the past decade feeling that their values were in decline rather than in ascent.

But this Faustian strategy could not last. To begin with, post-materialist values are becoming increasingly common, and so attacking them will bring diminishing returns in the long term. The harder the attacks, the more ground the Conservatives will ultimately have to row back on. If they have nothing positive to say to post-materialists, then they are building in their own obsolescence.

Moreover, there will have been a significant group of more cautious post-materialists who, up until a few years ago, were willing to vote for a liberal or One Nation iteration of Toryism. The loss of these voters since 2016 appears to have been treated by the Conservatives as collateral damage. But this means they have had to lean even more heavily on Leave voters and other groups who, while culturally at odds with post-materialists on issues such as crime, will have been just as horrified by raucous lockdown breaches followed by a Budget which caused the economy to collapse.

The plot against the post-materialists, then, now seems to be reaching its endgame, and many are doubling down. Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith’s recent call on voters to buy own-brand beans is a perfect illustration: it speaks to the most basic concerns about resource protection and scarcity, and ignores the big picture altogether.

Ultimately, the rise of post-materialism is a gradual, organic process, taking place in most developed countries as societies become more materially comfortable. This is not to say it doesn’t come with challenges. Helen Lewis’s excellent radio series, The New Gurus, illustrated that a society where everyone is in search of meaning rather than money carries perils of its own — and may not always be an especially nice place to live. But this doesn’t mean the rise of post-materialism is an elite plot or an institutional “capture”, as figures on the populist Right such as Matthew Goodwin have interpreted it. Nor is it a mass surrender to “Marxism” or “paganism”, contrary to what some of the speakers at the recent National Conservatism Conference reportedly believe.

Can the Right tempt young and middle-aged voters back into the fold? Policies which improve childcare provisions, fix the housing market, or create economic stability could, hypothetically, make a difference. There are few people so concerned about inner fulfilment as to not care about paying the mortgage. But if you look at the age gap data, what is striking is that the voting divide really kicked in after 2015, when the Tories began to signal at every opportunity that they were not just opposed to liberal and post-material ideas, but, in many cases, that they actively hated them.

From Suella Braverman talking about an “invasion” of migrants to Lee Anderson backing the death penalty, the Tories have used language and taken positions which have damaged their brand far more than the sum of their individual policies ever could. Starting to back policies which advance the interests of younger voters would of course be a start. But if the Tories continue to go to war with the values which many younger voters hold, then this “lost generation” will be the first of many.

Chris Clarke is a social researcher and former political press officer, and is the author of The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master