British Conservatives Face Three Structural Challenges

Membership is down. The youth vote has been lost. And the political landscape is shifting in Labour’s favor.

British prime minister Theresa May attends an EU summit in Tallinn, Estonia, September 28
British prime minister Theresa May attends an EU summit in Tallinn, Estonia, September 28 (EU2017EE/Annika Haas)

The United Kingdom’s Conservative Party has arguably been one of the most successful political parties in the Western world. It dominated British politics from 1886 to 1906, from 1918 to 1945, from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997. It is now in government since 2010.

Yet, as the party assembles in Manchester this week for its annual conference, there is a sense of decline. Conservative membership is down. Brexit has cost them the youth vote. And the political landscape has shifted in Labour’s favor.

1. Membership

The fewer members the party has, the fewer activists it can mobilize for election campaigns and the less money it has to spend on them.

The members the Conservatives do have give them a distorted picture of the country. Over two-thirds are male. Nearly nine in ten are middle class. Half are over the age of 65.

Labour, by contrast, now has 570,000 members, making it the biggest political party in Europe.

2. Youth vote

Brexit was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but Conservatives were struggling to appeal to young voters prior to 2015.

The party that aims for a “property-owning democracy” is failing Britons under the age of 34, who are half as likely as their parents’ generation to own their own home yet spend 6 percent more on average on housing.

A raise in university tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 didn’t endear Conservatives to young people either.

3. Political landscape

A YouGov poll for the right-wing Legatum Institute has found that 83 percent of British voters favor public ownership of water companies, 77 percent want to renationalize electricity and gas and 76 percent want to renationalize railways.

Conservatives can’t even get their own voters to agree with them on the last point: 75 percent of Conservative Party supporters would back renationalizing rail as well.

Unless the Conservatives can come up with solutions for the problems underlying these figures, they are going to have a hard time fighting off Labour in the next election.