The writer is director of Onward, a think-tank, and former deputy head of policy at 10 Downing Street
For the third time in six years, the gerontocracy that is the Conservative party membership are selecting the UK’s next prime minister. The party jealously guards the details of this rarefied selectorate, but academics put the average age at 57 years old, with just 6 per cent under the age of 25.
Little surprise, then, when young people say they lack a voice in decisions that affect their future. But whoever wins the Conservative crown should heed the growing discontent among younger generations without a vote. Across Europe, established centre-right parties are being felled not by centre-left opponents but by young people outflanking them on the authoritarian right — and Britain is not immune.
Fratelli d’Italia’s Giorgia Meloni is on course to be elected Italian prime minister this month by a voter base that includes a fifth of 18- to 34-year-olds. A further fifth support either Salvini’s League or Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, her expected right-populist coalition partners. This follows 49 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds who voted for Marine Le Pen in France’s second-round presidential vote in April — five times more than voted for her father in 2002. In both countries, traditional centre-right parties have fractured.
Across the liberal democratic world, young people are turning towards authoritarianism to solve their problems. One recent Oxford-backed study found that more than half of young Europeans believe authoritarian governments stand a better chance of tackling climate change than democracies.
In Britain, Onward research found that the share of young people supporting a “strong leader who does not have to worry about parliament or elections” has doubled in the last 20 years, now standing above 60 per cent. Nearly half of 18-34-year-olds believe military rule would be a good way to run the country, up from 9 per cent in 1999.
You do not have to look hard to guess why young people may be flirting with authoritarianism. The shadow of the financial crisis, student debt, wage stagnation and a never-ending housing crisis all conspire against a feeling of having a stake in society. For as long as liberal democracy fails to address the economic chasm between generations, it is losing.
But social factors are also at play. In the UK, the share of young people with just one or no close friends has doubled since before Covid. The civic association that Alexis de Tocqueville thought the essence of democratic society is increasingly the preserve of older generations. Creeping isolation pushes young people away from the mainstream: there is a direct correlation between the number of friends a young person has and support for authoritarian government.
Technology also plays a role, but not in the way often claimed. Time spent on social media has no relationship with authoritarian support. But how much people rely on online interaction for friendship or validation does. In the UK, young people with more friends online than in real life are twice as likely to back military rule as those who do not.
As is often the case, young men are most at risk of falling victim to these trends. Almost nine in 10 with more online than real-life friends back a strongman leader unencumbered by parliamentary democracy.
These shifts make difficult reading for the next prime minister. Leaders need a plan to convince young people of the inherent benefits of democracy. A good place to start would be national civic service to connect youngsters to their community and diverse friendships.
Britain’s Conservatives have always had a blind spot around young people. But the democratic withdrawal of younger generations is not something that the next prime minister can afford to ignore. The fate of not just the Tories but our political culture is at stake.