Memes won’t make young people like the Tories

It has now been almost eight months since the 2017 general election knocked on the head Theresa May’s dreams of what she, along with most pundits, had thought would be a nailed-down massive majority; with Labour’s seat gains and Tory losses removing the majority David Cameron had won in 2015 entirely and thus forcing her into coalition with the DUP to stay afloat. And there the story of Theresa May’s achievements as Prime Minister ends. A brutal, single-mindedly xenophobic Home Secretary becomes Prime Minister promising to deal with burning injustices, deals with precisely none of them, promises in a manifesto to do nothing anyone wants and then somehow manages the admittedly impressive feat of leading her party into the wilderness while it is also in government. This is, I suppose, an achievement of sorts.

Part of this was credited to a surge in youth voters going to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, which has been given a title so cretinous and forced-meme’d into public consciousness I’m not even going to use it here in case I lose whatever self-respect I have left. The precise quantity and even existence of that surge has been called into question by many, but suffice to say the notion that young people are motivated by Labour’s current promises and beliefs is a rather sound one, borne out by polling evidence and engagement in grassroots organisations like Momentum and indeed the Labour party itself. What is not so much talked about is the opposite and equally sound counterpart to that idea; that young people are actively repulsed by what the Conservative Party stands for. While the most vocal Tory supporters and Tory-friendly members of the commentariat — even some of the Labour right — are eager to dismiss this as the people concerned being “bribed” or “deluded”, the reason for the sheer amount of youth distrust is a lot simpler and probably a lot harder for such people to deal with psychologically. It boils down to something very simple indeed; Labour is promising to materially improve young peoples’ lives, while the Conservatives are promising to make them worse.

I’m not really in the business of giving the Conservative Party advice on how to run its affairs, mainly because the advice I’d really want to give them is to dissolve themselves as the party is an institutionally rotten organisation to its core, one that could only really be improved with a winding-up order. However, if I was somehow drafted in to rethink Tory strategy, I would look upon the last eighteen or so months as an abject lesson in what not to do, and would have done much the opposite. The Tories and their acolytes have turned off entire generations of voters by not, for whatever reason, listening or responding materially to their concerns but by repeatedly declining to do so and instead treating with hostility and naked contempt anyone who appears to actually be listening, or anyone who does not as a result wish to vote for them.

To summarise the issue, the Tories do not appear to have a meaningful offer to anyone who is in work, rents and/or does not have significant capital or a means of acquiring capital, which is an altogether too common state of affairs. They also have no particular ideas as to how to help anyone who does not have capital to obtain capital, while also making it clear that the cash-poor don’t feature much in their thinking through wheezes such as Help to Buy or the cut in stamp duty, neither of which materially solve problems relating to housing for those who don’t already have enough money for a deposit (and in fact may well make those problems much much worse). If you are in work and depressed that your outgoings are increasing while your income stays flat, that your rent is taking up a greater and greater proportion of your income or that you have no particular means of amassing savings or wealth of any kind bar a relative dying and passing it on to you, the Tories have nothing to say to your concerns. Labour, meanwhile, proposes solutions to these problems — perhaps not stunningly efficient, Pareto-optimal solutions but solutions that would make a difference in peoples’ lives nonetheless. Given this, why would someone in the above situation vote Tory?

There’s a particularly nasty strain of thought in Conservative circles, the “natural party of government” conceit, where the Conservatives are not merely the best party to run the United Kingdom but the only party that should be allowed to run the United Kingdom; that the opposition are a proverbial set of barbarians at the gates, and that the only way to stop the barbarians winning and trashing the place is to vote Tory. This mindset, deeply ingrained in the Tory psyche, is no more crystal clear than when people who vote for a different party because the Tories don’t offer them anything they want (and plenty of misery and things they don’t want to boot) are berated as “gullible” for voting for a party that is promising to materially make them better off in a clearly visible and comprehensible way. The prevalence of this attack line indicates two things, neither of them particularly complimentary — first, that the Tories and their followers have, by and large, no intention of showing the slightest bit of introspection or thought as to why these voters think of them so poorly, and secondly that they think that either naked contempt or lip service is the sort of thing that will win them back. Rather than, say, promising to do something about house prices and incomes.

It really is nothing but raw contempt that shows through—principally contempt for millennials, that poorly defined but nevertheless simultaneously lazy, insipid and overly-politicised generation that’s too busy smashing avocados and eating ass to save for a house deposit. The thought that maybe these are actual people, dealing with actual problems which require meaningful solutions that are beyond their own will to solve, appears to be lost on those who sneer and judge for any frivolous expenditure such a person might make, or for those who posit oh-so-simple remedies to systemic problems like “just give up drinking coffee” as if they’re a meaningful intervention rather than a statement of profound ignorance. The thought that perhaps the inability of a full-time worker to save for a deposit has more to do with squeezed household budgets and an increasingly ludicrous housing market than with the ownership of a smartphone appears to be thoroughly alien; that there may be barriers to wealth and prosperity beyond personal failings scoffed at; that “just move to a cheaper area” is not a helpful response to houses and rents being insanely expensive where well-paying, secure jobs are located ignored; that perhaps there’s more to life than working all hours and eschewing leisure indefinitely to be able to deal with the thoroughly insane housing market you inherited through no fault of your own is not even a consideration. It’s my firm belief, backed up by nothing, that this derision for the situations of many young people and the victim-blaming that results is a product of nothing more than a refusal to acknowledge that the standard Tory formula of austerity, toleration of excessive wealth hoarding and minimal state intervention has reached its limits of usefulness; an expression of extreme cognitive dissonance at the idea that good old hard work and thrift is not enough in a world where the deck is thoroughly stacked against you from the start.

So the question gets asked again — why should a young person vote Tory ?— and yet the Tories don’t want to answer it, because the problems that young people care about and desperately need solving are all precipitate from Tory ideology and Tory policy. Tory ideology cannot fail, it can only be failed. Instead of actually doing what would not only help young people but also help restore their trust in the party — reversing course, abandoning austerity, acknowledging that they had got it wrong, acknowledging that the overwhelmingly remain-supporting younger generations should have their interests represented as much as the two dozen ERG MPs banging tables for a hard Brexit — the Tory party has reverted to type in instead treating it not as a failure of policy and implementation but as a failure of messaging.

I don’t even need to link to the many articles about Tories trying to rally young supporters with centrally-produced forced memes, or the launching of a completely astroturfed “grassroots” competitor to Momentum called “Activate”. The fact that there are such articles speaks volumes. Rather than try to talk to young people on their level about issues that matter to them, and about how the Conservatives can help them succeed and enjoy happy fulfilling lives, the party heirarchy seems content to assume that the problem is just that young people aren’t seeing the same tired messages and attack lines that they’re already bombarded with from their racist grandad, only in the Impact typeface (“Oh, an image macro saying Diane Abbott can’t count? Wow, that’s my mind changed, deffo voting Tory now.”) Rather than try to genuinely enthuse young people with propositions that can actually help them, and generate activist support organically, they think the best way forward is a top-down “build it and they will come” approach, which has predictably ended in typical Young Conservative loons being the only ones interested. Much is said about voting Tory not being seen as “cool”, but realistically the problem isn’t that Labour is “cool” in and of itself, it’s that the Tories have proven themselves through their actions in government to be actively harmful to the lives and opportunities of young people and hostile to what they consider important, if not actively contemptuous of them. It’s not very “cool” to vote for a party that has made plain that it hates you and everything you stand for.

Far from being gullible, millennials are rather more sharp than given credit for in a way that the standard Tory methods of a friendly press cannot counter. The standard attack lines don’t work on them. You can’t put out context-free quotes in the Daily Mail in a world where every speech someone makes is available on YouTube within a few hours. You can’t just make things up in a world where a fact check is just a Google away. I’ve seen quote-tweeted rebuttals to bullshit some blue-tick or other has posted on Twitter before I’ve seen the original tweet. Attack lines don’t work in this context, or if you’re not actually promising anything to materially help people; 2017 is arguably the best demonstration of that, when the Conservatives threw out everything they had on supposed terrorist-sympathising Marxist commie anti-Semite Jeremy Corbyn and were greeted with nothing but a yawn in response. In a world where the “terrorist-sympathising Marxist commie anti-Semite” is seen to be making more sense and talking in a more directly relevant way to ordinary people than the self-proclaimed Natural Party of Government(TM), attack lines don’t do anything but reinforce that the latter has nothing valuable to say and doesn’t deserve a vote, much less vocal support.

All of this boils down to the same basic issue; a fundamental misunderstanding by a predominantly old, white and nationalist Conservative party as to what young people care about, a misunderstanding so laced with scorn and visceral dislike that it can only be construed as a deliberate lack of concern. This increasingly aimless lame-duck government, and the increasingly intellectually bankrupt party running it, has no answers to normal peoples’ material concerns, and responds to the only person in the room who in the eyes of many seems to acutely understand them with nothing except mockery, derision and the same tired “there is no money” lines that have worn increasingly thin over the last eight years. I don’t, for the record, want the Conservative party to succeed in winning elections, as as far as I am concerned it is institutionally the enemy of anything good, but assuming that it wants to then the least it could do is treat the people who shun it as if they have valid concerns and wants, rather than some kind of inherent defect; only then can the work start on actually responding to them.