One group of people who have seen their electoral fortunes surge in 2017 have been the young. For years, political sages have warned that any campaign strategy built on pursuing their vote will end in tatters. They don’t vote, and when they do their votes are too concreted in urban areas to really make a difference.
For years this was true. Until this year, it wasn’t. A surge of young voters swept away the Government’s majority, turning places like Canterbury, that had been blue for 100 years, red.
Sale of ivory products
Now political parties, especially the Conservatives judging by their Party Conference last week, are desperately seeking ways to reconnect with this new, awoken, electorate. To that end, surprising polling by Bright Blue should be essential reading.
Among 18-28 year olds the top issue they wanted to hear about more from politicians was climate change. When the age group was expanded to the under 40s climate change was still high, coming second behind health.
And the top three policies that young voters said would make them most proud to vote for a party were all linked to the environment: Generating more renewable power, banning the sale of ivory products and increasing the roll-out of household insulation.
This obviously bodes well for the Greens who have long dominated this political turf. This week during their party conference co-leader Jonathan Bartley launched their Breathing Cities campaign designed to tackle air pollution by making the city centres of London, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and Oxford, zero emission zones within five years.
Blame young voters
Meanwhile the other half of the party’s leadership duo, Caroline Lucas, looked ahead to next month’s UN climate summit in Bonn, Germany, pointing out the impracticality and injustice of requiring poor countries to meet emission reduction targets without the financial help to leapfrog the dirty development pathways used by richer nations.
Bright Blue’s research will come as a wake-up call to the other mainstream parties (and maybe the media too considering the relative paucity of coverage on the environment we see from our national broadcasters and newspapers).
But it will be of particular concern to Theresa May’s Conservatives. The same poll showed that the three words young people most associated with Tory climate change policy was ‘weak’, ‘inadequate’ and ‘damaging’. For a party facing a demographic time bomb – according to one estimate the average age of a Conservative Party member is now 72 – this combination of results will make grim reading.
What is so odd is that the Government has seemingly done its best to create this sorry state of affairs. It chose November 9th2016 as the date to make the historic announcement that it would phase out the burning of coal in the UK by 2025.
Yes, that was the day the world woke up to discover that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States. Usually such moments are chosen to bury bad news, not good news. Can the Conservatives really blame young voters for having such a lowly view of their climate policies when they do their best to keep them quiet?
A hung parliament
It needn’t have been this way. David Cameron started his modernisation of the Conservative Party on a platform of ‘vote blue, go green’. However during his premiership the environment featured less and less in his public pronouncements.
In his speech as he left Downing Street the two issues he said he was most proud of were the two issues where he stood firm in the face of pressure from his own backbenchers and the editorials of the Daily Mail: gay marriage and the aid budget. Had he stuck to his guns on the environment then maybe the party’s perception problem among the young might not be so severe.
At a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, Richard Harrington, Minister for Industry and Energy, admitted party strategists may have given green issues a lower priority during the election campaign in its bid to win over Brexit voters.
However green issues are far from a concern of only the metropolitan elite. Other polling from Bright Blue this year revealed that a stunning 81% of Tory Leave voters wants the UK to retain its EU renewables targets after Brexit.
For the Conservatives this policy area is a risk-free option. The voters want it and their political opponents are not going to attack them for being more environmentally friendly. And in a hung parliament the few issues with cross party support should be treasured by Governments, not ignored.
Britain’s green minded
The recent record setting falls in the price of offshore wind show the game changing potential of renewable energy. Only a few years ago offshore wind was the expensive option to its much cheaper onshore cousin and yet with Government encouragement the price has tumbled.
The time has come to scrap the ‘nimby’ fuelled ban on new offshore wind and allow the technological advance of renewables to lower electricity bills even further. A Government that has just announced it is going to cap energy bills for consumers can no longer block the cheapest forms of energy.
If they don’t act, Britain’s green minded young voters will continue to take their business elsewhere.
Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid and a New Voices contributor at the Ecologist. He is on twitter @wareisjoe.