February 1, 2023 - 9:30am

The headline finding of this week’s UnHerd Britain survey is a collapse in support for Brexit, with a particularly steep decline in the strongest Labour areas. The Conservatives — who once had a chance of winning over non-Tory Leave voters — have blown their big opportunity. 

What’s more, they’ve done it in next to no time. Unbelievably, it’s less than two years since the Hartlepool by-election, in which the Tories triumphed in a seat that had been solidly Labour since 1964. It’s an object lesson in not taking the British electorate for granted. Clearly, there was nothing fixed about the political realignment of 2019, which is why the Conservatives now find themselves in the quicksand.

In a fascinating Substack, Patrick English provides another example of the UK’s ever-shifting socio-political geography. This starts with the conventional wisdom that our big cities have become the abode of students and young professionals. And, sure enough, it’s a well-documented trend with measurable consequences — not least for politics, where urban constituencies have become strongholds of the liberal Left. 

Except that, as English demonstrates, the demographic trend has reversed. Since the middle of the last decade, our biggest cities have been getting older. In places like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and London the share of the population aged between 18 and 34 has been shrinking.

This is no longer the age of the urban millennial. The youngest members of that generation are now in their late twenties and the eldest are middle-aged. Therefore, as the millennials get older and leave the bright lights behind for commuter-land, cities need to replace them with post-millennials. The latter, however, don’t seem so keen on the urban way of life — and given city centre rent levels, who can blame them? 

In theory, the ageing of our cities should mean that they become more politically competitive. But though he hints at this possibility, English argues that there’s a catch for the Conservatives. Young people have to live somewhere, and if they’re not squeezing themselves into ultra-safe Labour seats then they’re spreading themselves out more widely. 

Indeed, English maps out a number of locations in South East England that he calls “Benjamin Button” areas — because they keep getting younger:

Credit: Patrick English

These locations cover no less than 42 Westminster constituencies, every one of them held by the Conservatives. But for how long? If the growing numbers of young people in these communities keep voting Left (one trend that shows no signs of reversing) then that means that once rock-solid Tory seats become vulnerable. The Tories are already worried by local election results in the Blue Wall, where they’ve been losing council seats to Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens. 

One can only conclude that Tory strategists have been extraordinarily negligent. Their failure to consolidate Red Wall gains in the North and Midlands is so complete that one might almost suspect deliberate sabotage. It’s as if some Tories were so unwilling to become a One Nation party again that they went out of their way to alienate their new supporters. 

However, in also alienating the younger generation, and letting the housing market price them out of the cities, they’re starting to compromise the Blue Wall, too.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.