James Bethell: Forget the old and focus on the young

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If there is one thing David Cameron must do, it is to make sure his ageing party puts an appeal to young voters at the centre of its strategy, a radical move that would reverse political battle lines. In May's general election, Conservatives polled a desperate third place among 20-34 year olds, with a measly 26 per cent of the vote underlining their dependence on the Saga vote.

Lord Ashcroft's voluminous "Smell The Coffee" research blamed the toxic Conservative brand - the association with selfishness and dishonesty. But the blame for the Conservatives' poor showing should not stop there. The whole party has become ludicrously distracted by getting out the wrinklies.

Its intellectual energy is disproportionately concentrated on Meldrewesque pet peeves connected with pensions and council taxes. Instead, it should be crafting the sort of bold vision of the future young people can connect with, encompassing the big issues of the environment and poverty. The hostile language of "hoodies", "grade-inflation" and "binge-drinking" implied that young people were at best idle and at worst a menace, rather than celebrating the achievements of the hardest-working generation since the war.

And its local marketing machine was, and remains, obsessed by knocking-up "our" voters, effectively pensioners and slightly-strange, stay-at-home, types rather than inspiring more numerous floating voters with local campaigns and perception-changing interventions. One senior figure from the 2005 general election demonstrated the point to me thus: "If you have a spare dollar, you're better off spending it winning over a 65- year-old voter. Young people are the last people you would waste your money on."

But there is a growing realisation that this blinkered reverse-ageism misses subtle but important changes in the political landscape that have brought young voters back on to the field of play.

A growing feature of the political landscape is the intergenerational conflict between the baby-boomers spending their kids' inheritance on lavish public services and foreign holidays, saddling future generations with student loans, unaffordable housing, miserly pensions and staggering national debts.

David Willetts put it to Policy Exchange last week: "We live in a society divided not just by class or culture, but increasingly by age." Among the prosperous, the question is about competitiveness. Can I get a job that pays for my dreams? Or at least the lifestyle of my parents? And among the less fortunate, the concerns are opportunity. Can I get the training and job interviews that will lift me out of this dump?

There seems to be a growing realisation that Tony Blair, the high-spending baby-boomer Prime Minister, epitomises the problem with his generous pension, property speculation and dicky heart. His quick-fix answers seem tired and dated to young people who are looking for a vision. Cameron should surf these emotions.

It is not just the kids who are in debt, pressurised, over-worked and depressed, as think-tank Reform's iPod study put it. Parents are fretting about inter-generational fairness, too. It's all very well to vote Labour because it makes you feel good, but no parent wants to think their children will be taxed out of owning a house or raising kids, or have their lifestyle stolen by better-trained Far Eastern competition.

This is Cameron's opportunity. He has a chance to pitch a vision for Britain that skips a generation and directly addresses the concerns of young people. And, as a by-product, inspire their parents at the same time.

The electoral advantage is best seen in the 24 marginal seats where under-34s are more than 30 per cent of the voters. In these urban dormitories, such as Battersea and Birmingham Edgbaston, young people are struggling to get on the property ladder or start a family against a system they feel is tilted against them. They are becoming potent areas of unrest, as was shown at Justine Greening MP's stunning victory in Putney in the May general election.

Last year's American election saw polarised candidates engaged in a tooth-and-nail fight on the emotional issue of Iraq. Voting among young people rose generally, and among graduates it rose to an astonishing 77 per cent.

The next election promises to be a close affair. If Cameron can somehow make the issues more relevant, young people may well return to the polls. And the impact of a campaign focused on young voters will also bring in an older generation, concerned about their legacy.

James Bethell was the Conservative candidate for Tooting in the 2005 general election