Why young people leaving the cities is bad for the Tories
They are moving to so-called 'Benjamin Button areas'
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.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
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:
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.
It will not necessarily happen that they will always vote Left. What happens when you move out of towns, is that you have to learn to get on with people of different outlooks, whereas in large cities you can choose those with whom you socialise as you have a larger pool. One anecdotal piece of evidence is a couple that I know very well who believed that Jeremy Corbin was the hope of Mankind; they who moved out of London to a small village in Berkshire, and within a few years were starting to be more critical of the ideas of the far-left. I’m not saying that they’re gong to vote Tory, but they are brushing up against Tory voters and speaking to them; this does have an effect.
Indeed. When I moved to the rural South in the US many of my liberal friends warned me that I would hate it (too redneck, too backward, too -ist and -phobic). Fact is I really like it. I’ve found there’s more divergent thinking here than there are in big cities. You also learn to be self-reliant in a way that is impossible in densely populated areas, which doesn’t gel well at all with urban-left thinking.
We left the Northeast for the southwest coast of Florida two years ago. Today it’s sunny, dry, and in the low 80s (Fahrenheit). It’s too beautiful to give a flying what urban Leftists scraping ice off their windshields think.
Come to the Lambourn area… we still have Whigs…
Similar thing is happening in America – Dem voters leaving the “sanctuary cities” (LOL) and states their voting habits destroyed and moving to Red, better governed states to ruin them too.
Are these the blue locusts?
The “historical labour” voters voted tory for Brexit, decent paying jobs and reduced immigration, they did not get that reduced immigratio, nor the decent paying jobs.
Young eople want reduced housing costs, and will vote for whoever promises that.
Tories seem hell bent on pissing off those two constituencies.
The irony is that reducing immigration would reduce the cost of houses and increase the pay for working class jobs. With a decent presentation, this policy – which was in the 2015 and 2017 Tory manifestos – could be an election winner for them.
could have been …
The problem is that they were lying. If they promise the same again, it will still be a lie, and most people know that.
Sadly, no one is doing anything to reduce housing costs. Whatever they may be promising. Labour and and Lib Dems are no better.
Well this is good news. You might be surprised to learn just how many young people in their early twenties,both male and female dream of building a rustic shack on an acre of land and just living like that. I had that dream myself when I was twenty. It recurs in every generation. It wouldn’t work out of course and all but one or maybe two would fail and go back to conventional living but how grim that we live in such a regulated and ordered society that most cannot even give it a try. I guess van dwelling is a half way house, achievable at least if not comfortable. All these hygiene rules,animal welfare rules etc sound very reasonable at first until you begin to suspect their purpose is to make any sort of escape from The System impossible.
Happened in Australia too – they move to attractive small towns and pretty much stack the local councils and bureaucracies and committees with anti-growth activists.
I don’t go along with the basic premise here that people who move take their views with them and do not adapt or change. I know from personal experience how moving only 12 miles from a small university city to a small village outside it hugely changes your views and outlook on life (having a first child to look after was doubtless also a factor – but is not untypical for people who move out of cities).
As Linda H has already noted, you meet quite different groups of people. You also tend to adapt to fit into the existing fabric of the village rather than self-selecting a group of friends who largely share your own views. I would also suggest that people in the countryside and smaller towns have fewer local services to fall back on (public transport is almost non-existent) and therefore both more self-reliant and in much closer contact with neighbours. It is hard not to become more “somewhere” (locally attached) and less “anywhere” (universalist, internationalist). Nor is it something I think you should try to resist.
So far from more young people moving out of the cities being a threat to the Tories, it may well – in the medium term – be an advantage for them. That’s assuming they actually present an agenda significantly different from Labour …
I think the author is lazily falling for a similar fallacy to the “Brexit voters are dying off” one here. Does UnHerd have any journalists who live outside the “London blast radius” ? Other than Mary Harrington who coined that phrase.
Don’t understand the map. It shows areas where the percentage of young people has dropped but no corresponding areas of increase. Perhaps they have been abducted by aliens, or is that wishful thinking?
If they have, i suspect they’ll be illegal aliens (courtesy of Sting).
Collapsing birth rate. Less young people overall.
The contention that younger people today have different viewpoints from older generation and as they move from cities to more rural settings will take many of those values with them I think will generally hold. Obviously some values will evolve but your formative years do make a difference.
Of course as you age neurone regeneration and growth slows making one a little less adaptable. One suspects that were ages published alongside comments we might find an immediate confirmation of that here on UnHerd.
I suspect you’re partially right, but equally that it’s the case that some sort of views and beliefs will be “sticky” when the younger generation move, but that others will not. I couldn’t tell you exactly which is which – and to be honest haven’t given it much thought.
I think it is the case that everything changes slower in rural areas than in cities – and equally that it is less volatile (which is often a good thing). That might be why the London-centric media get so excitable about very transitory things, while they go straight into my “low pass filter” (slipping into electronics speak – for example anything that’s not going to last more than a week could usually be ignored).
It’s equally the case that the primary concerns of city dwellers can be quite different from rural inhabitants. To take just one example, I had no idea that a few million people used heating oil until I moved to a village (and it depends very much where in the country you live if that applies). But then, we don’t really have to worry about muggings, stabbings and shootings out here. Different priorities lead to different views and different sympathies and instincts.
Of course, young people moving out from the cities has always been going on and is both normal and necessary.
Agree. Policy concerns can be quite different as a result of locality. The issue though may be how much a specific policy, such as rural transport or access to car charging points, changes underlying values. I suspect not that much. If you grew up in a city school full of diversity, and racism, sexism etc much less prevalent and casually accepted than it was when i was a youngster then I think that stuff stays with you.
Of course youngsters today look like being one of the first generations to be poorer than their parents. We don’t know how that is going to play out but it’s not a good position IMO for social cohesion over the medium term.
Indeed, there is far more diversity and less racism these days – and in rural areas too. Astonishing that the media behave as though “racism” has got worse since the 1970s. But protest movements rarely seem to die off when they’ve largely achieved their ostensible objectives.
I’m not convinced by the “poorer than their parents” argument. In what sense is this true and how should it be measured ? It’s only really housing and pensions that are big problems (and they’re really big problems). I really don’t like that fact that inherited wealth is becoming so important now.
Going heavily off-topic here now …
Housing and home living standards is better today than it was 50 years ago (though it’s far more expensive and build standards are generally lower).
Yes, pensions have got worse.
Transport is generally far better and cheaper (and safer). Unlikely it will get worse.
Travel opportunities are far better. I don’t think those will get any worse.
Energy and environmental challenges are solvable and will be solved.
Health is much better – or it is if you bother to look after yourself properly.
Food is much better. It’s easier to eat healthily – if you choose to.
Educational opportunities are generally better than they were. Far more learning resources these days to learn outside schools and universities – and at low cost.
Technology is way better – and continues to improve – and this makes it easier for people to quickly and cheaply start up new businesses.
People have more leisure time (despite what they claim about being busier than ever – a lot of that is by choice).
Let’s agree Housing, Pensions (incl. having to work appreciably longer than us) and Job security not looking so good for younger generation than us. Furthermore they leave College/Univ with debt we never had. Might be slightly different if comparing to our parents (their Grandparents) but that’s not the comparison quite in question.
I agree with much of your list, but there is no doubt the big three and student debt can colour all else. I see hard working youngsters with no chance at all to own their own home anytime soon. Only the bank of Mum & Dad might rescue them thus ratcheting inequality. That was not the case with us.
I’d probably question the last one though. Once they enter the workplace I suspect the hours are longer than we had in general – workforce is less unionised will be one factor in this. I suspect also because cost of living running ahead of wages people will be working more hours where that’s possible. This may change with the workforce shortages nationally but likely sector specific.
No one has yet to mention the fact that the probable reason the Tories are doing terribly is they dumped their popular leader(who was the most popular politician in England and probably still is, for what that’s worth) and replaced it with a lettuce followed by a stuffed suit. At least the lettuce was entertaining.
Don’t suppose people like you worry about the fact that he was a serial liar, and a complete buffoon to boot.
Looking at the graphic leaves me wondering where (if anywhere) did the % of younger people rise…. this could significantly affect any conclusions.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe