Turning the Swifties Tory
How the Conservatives solve their problem with young women
The Conservative Party has a problem with young people. It also has a problem with women. Together this means a particular lack of support from young women. Unless it finds a way to convert these voters it faces a looming crisis as they become a bigger share of the electorate and the Tory-backing pensioners start to diminish as a bloc.
Conservatives might expect the young to reject them, but their lack of support among women is a new problem and should be a worrying one. Though there is a cultural expectation that women are more liberally inclined, this is not borne out by historic data. Indeed, one of the arguments the Tories had for accepting female suffrage in 1918 was that it would function as a bulwark against the enfranchisement of poor, Labour-leaning men. This bulwark served them well.
Until 2001, women were consistently more likely to vote Conservative than men were. Much of the Tory party’s dominance of post-war politics was down to their support from women, exacerbating the swing to the Tories in key general elections, like 1979. Also striking is that while women under 25 tended to lean Labour, they switched to the Tories at a younger age than men, with every subsequent cohort being more likely to vote blue than the boys. This has now changed.
Though Cameron’s first election showed a slight preference for the Conservatives among women, it has evaporated. In the three general elections from 2015 to 2019, the proportion of women voting for Labour increased each time. Along with the growing divide between older and younger voters, this leaves the Tories struggling desperately with young women: only 20% of women under 35 voted Conservative at the last general election.
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There is no immediate answer as to why this happens. The Conservative Party is ambivalent about abortion, which is a major driver of the gender divide in US politics. Austerity is arguably more likely to have impacted women, but only explains so much – the Conservatives should still be as able to appeal to affluent women as they ever did. Boris Johnson was personally unpopular with female voters, but this trend extends beyond him. Women tended to vote Remain, younger ones especially, but that still isn’t a full explanation. Fundamentally, the Tories are underperforming with a group of voters they ought to be able to win over and are doing so because they fail to tackle the problems which matter to them.
Sebastian Payne has already written thoughtfully about Waitrose Woman, the affluent Home Counties voter who opposed Brexit and is now flirting with the Lib Dems. Losing these would be disastrous to the Conservatives, but they should also be worried about younger women. It’s a psephological group I’m loosely dubbing “Taylor Swift Tories”.
The Taylor Swift Tory isn’t currently a Tory voter, but she should be persuadable. Her markers begin with her enthusiasm for the star’s music and her demographic similarities to the singer herself. Our voter is in her late twenties to early thirties. She is relatively affluent but doesn’t feel it – a graduate working in a city, her 40% tax bracket income is hammered by student loan payments and high rents. She and her (Tory voting) partner, if she has one, are simultaneously richer and poorer than Deano and Georgia – earning more, but with high expenses on essentials. Her parents are at least comfortably off (maybe enough to help with a deposit, not enough to buy her a house) and probably Tory voting. They may be immigrants, but she is British.
Like the star, her party politics may have had some ambiguity, but her outlook is not incompatible with the Tories. She’s not a maniac for low taxes and supports the welfare state, but could be convinced that it is wasteful, and does worry that the government might take too much of her money. Though she doesn’t have a family yet, she wants one eventually – at the top of the demographic she’ll be married already, at the lower end hoping for it one day. She wants to own a house with a garden for her potential kids (and cats). She cares about the environment, perhaps enough to give up meat but not flying. She’s supportive of gay rights and women’s equality. She identifies as a feminist. She might have voted for the Conservatives in 2010 (though could have gone Lib Dem over fees), but probably hasn’t since. She gets her news online from reputable outlets, and may Tweet, but is too old for TikTok.
The voters in this subsection should be a tempting prospect for the Conservatives. On paper, they fit with the party. A generation ago they would have been nailed on Tories – but are now squeezed by the party’s failure to tackle their issues. For the optimistic Conservatives, these voters can be won over by doing stuff that both aligns with the party’s principles and is good for the country.
The first issue to tackle should be crime. This sort of voter was terrified by the murder of Sarah Everard. If she hasn’t suffered sexual abuse or domestic violence on some scale, she has close friends who have and considers it a real risk. She doesn’t believe that the police or authorities take it seriously, a view confirmed by failed convictions and light sentences seen in the news. She wants to feel safe walking home from the station and is angry that the police service seems full of misogynists.
Crime is an issue the Tories should own, yet have repeatedly failed on. Their parsimony with state funding has undercut the investigative and court system, while they have also shown a lack of serious thinking about reform to police and prisons. It is now an expensive failure which reassures no one, whilst still seeming cruel to both complainants and defendants. The Conservative Party must reckon with this, and is politically well-placed to do so.
The party has far fewer internal concerns about tough sentences than Labour and it shouldn’t be averse to tackling waste and institutional failings within public services. If the party is serious about governing, it could unveil an intelligent package of funding and reforms which engage with the key issues of the justice system. Cases should be brought through more quickly, and with fewer wasteful short prison sentences yet serious time inside for repeat and escalatory offenders. The police should be remade into an organisation victims feel comfortable approaching, with the trust they will be treated seriously and supportively. It is a complex project but if delivered properly it would be both good for the country and popular with the Swiftie demographic and elsewhere.
The Taylor Swift Tories’ other major concerns are economic. As discussed, she has a high income but doesn’t feel wealthy. This is compounded when compared with her parents’ generation. Though she has a good job, she is punished by high house prices, either spending through the nose in rent or paying a large mortgage on a smallish property. Student loans are also a drag, giving her one of the highest marginal tax rates around. On top of this, she looks ahead, knowing that she’ll be clobbered by childcare costs in the near future. She doesn’t want to give up work permanently and knows time off will impact her career, but frets that she’ll end up working long hours for no gain when the time comes.
Being caught between these horns without family money to fall back on or an exceptionally high-earning spouse, she feels closer to the Just About Managing than her wage suggests. She doesn’t feel like she’s building wealth or sustaining the sort of life her job title should mean. Equally, she doesn’t think that the Tories have the answer to her problems.
She is right in this diagnosis, but again there is no reason why she has to be. It suits the Conservatives both electorally and philosophically to offer solutions to these issues. The party ought to want to support families to have decent homes and care for their children, but it has neglected this group in favour of NIMBYism and the triple lock. If they want to win over the Swiftie vote, they will have to offer something to ease it – a credible way to make childcare affordable, and the planning liberalisation which can help cool the housing market.
The further challenge the party faces is a presentational one. The appeal of the Tories to younger, urban voters is dampened by having spent the last five years alienating them. Brexit was part of this, but so too were subsequent events like attacking flexible working, backbench MPs vetoing up-skirting legislation and a general obsession with anti-wokery. Voting always has a social contingent and as long as people feel uncomfortable supporting the Tories at the dinner table, they will struggle to do so at the ballot box.
It is open to the party to seize the initiative on this. As well as stepping back from nasty rhetoric which pleases populists but puts off others, concrete efforts could be made to show they share modern values. The first would be a proper commitment to discipline around harassment in Westminister. For too long the party has been exceptionally casual about reports and rumours of abuse. They should lead the development of a proper reporting and punishment system for MPs, as well as proactively pursuing offenders in their own ranks.
The party should also try to come to terms with diversity and inclusion. There is a way to make a compelling conservative case that tackles this argument – pushing for meritocracy and an acceptance of inequality of outcome without sounding like they are railing at the realities of the modern world. The Tories should see the economic and social benefits of tackling discrimination and try to fight it on their terms. Indulging crude terms like the “war on woke” is a way to alienate younger, richer voters. They will also have to stress their environmental credentials and eschew the climate-denier influence which sometimes emerges. It’s the nasty party problem all over again.
The Conservative Party is staring down the barrel of an historic electoral defeat. They have alienated many of their traditional supporters while at the same time failing to cement the switch to them in the Red Wall. Success in 2019 arguably came from an unrepeatable set of factors, with an issue (Brexit) and an opponent (Corbyn) that galvanised an unlikely electoral coalition. It was still a worse result than anything Mrs Thatcher achieved. The question is less what happens in 2024, but whether they can recover from it.
If the Conservatives fail to convert voters that should be in their wheelhouse, it will hinder them in both the short and long-term. They are increasingly reliant on pensioners, which is obviously unsustainable. Most of the Tories’ 20th-century success was built on a bedrock of women voters, who started voting for them younger and did so in greater proportions than the men. There’s no strong reason why that couldn’t be the case again – but they have to offer them something.
The party hasn’t noticed the pain of losing young, middle-class women yet because they mostly live in urban seats where the party struggles anyway. In a few years, however, they will move to the urban fringe and commuter belt. If the Tories haven’t addressed their concerns about housing costs, childcare and crime, they still won’t vote for the party.
Courting this group makes obvious electoral sense to the Tories. They mostly want the sort of life Tories support, with a good income, a house, and a family. There is no fundamental reason why they shouldn’t be open to voting blue, just as their demographic predecessors were. If the party of the right can’t offer solutions to their problems, however, it won’t win them over. George W. Bush might have been buoyed by the swift boaters, but the Tories should be reaching out to the Swiftie voters. Otherwise, they’ll find them solidly red.
More from me:
I joined the New Statesman podcast this week to talk about the past and the future of the Conservative Party - check it out below or from your usual podcast provider:
While I also wrote for UnHerd about the challenges facing Jeremy Hunt in his fiscal statement this week.