Polling reveals Tories need to embrace greener policies if they are to appeal to younger voters
The Conservative Party Conference kicked off in Manchester over the weekend with a warning the party will struggle to appeal to voters under 40 unless it takes a stronger line on environmental issues.
Centre right think tank Bright Blue published the results of a major new survey of over 1,000 younger voters' priorities, revealing climate change is the issue 18 to 28 year olds most want to hear politicians talk more about.
The survey asked voters under 40 what issues they thought senior politicians did not speak about enough. It also asked them which three policies would make them proud to vote for a party and what three terms would they use to describe Conservative climate policies.
It found that the issues, in order of importance, that younger voters want to see politicians engage with more are health, climate change, and education. Climate change rises to become the top issue for voters under 28.
Similarly, all three of the most popular policies that voters said would make them proud to support a party were environmentally-focused.
Generating more electricity from renewables like wind and solar secured backing from 83 per cent of young voters, a ban on the sale of all ivory products in the UK was supported by 77 per cent of respondents, and 71 per cent backed proposals to provide incentives for people to install insulation in their homes.
The past two Conservative-led governments have overseen sharp reductions in UK greenhouse gas emissions and a surge in clean energy investment, which resulted in the latest data confirming over half of the UK's power was from clean low carbon sources during the second half of the year. However, the Party's environmental credentials have been repeatedly questioned, thanks to the decision to water down a host of clean energy policies and public hostility towards climate action from some senior Conservative figures.
As a result, the poll found that all three of the terms younger voters associate with Conservative climate policies are negative. Twenty-one per cent of respondents described Tory policies as "weak", 20 per cent said they were "inadequate", and 11 per cent said they were "damaging". Forty-five percent say they do not know how to describe Conservative policies.
Former Conservative leader Lord Howard urged the government to "take this polling seriously".
"The Conservatives have a proud record of environmental leadership dating from Margaret Thatcher, who was the first world leader to warn of the consequences of global warming," he said. "We need to continue the progress we have made and renew our leading contribution to the environmental challenges confronting our planet."
George Freeman MP, chair of the prime minister's policy board and chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum, said a bolder stance on environmental issues was essential if the party was to appeal to those younger voters who largely failed to back the party at the last election.
"If the Conservative Party is to restore the confidence of the Millennial generation in mainstream politics and capitalism, it is essential that we commit to make sure markets work in a way which values the environment and our local and global ecosystem," he said. "This is about both policies and values. We need to show how exciting new technologies, innovations and 'Clean-Tech' start-ups in the green economy are transforming our world, and show our commitment to reform markets like energy, housing, and transport to support progressive, clean 21st century economics.
"But Conservatives also need to signal that the values of environmentalism - stewardship, responsibility, respect for our shared inheritance - are core to our movement."
Sam Hall, senior research fellow of Bright Blue, said the results should prove "deeply concerning" to the Conservative leadership as it strives to enhance its appeal amongst voters under 40.
"The Conservative Party's policies have a bad image among the under 40s in policy areas that are popular with young people," he warned. "To rectify this, the party should adopt ambitious new policies that younger people would be proud of. Our polling suggests their top priority should be to develop and champion policies to tackle climate change, like generating more electricity from ever cheaper renewables like solar and wind."
He added that the Party now needed to revive ideas that it flirted with during the Cameron era, but struggled to communicate to younger voters in particular. "When leader of the opposition, David Cameron was right to recognise the potential for green policies to inspire a new generation of Conservative voters," he said. "It's time for the party to reconnect with its long history of environmental stewardship. It might help them win over those younger voters who cost them their majority at the last general election and whose support they will need if they are to regain it in future."
The Conservative leadership will hope its imminent Clean Growth Plan, which will set out how the UK can meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets through to the 2030s, can help restore its reputation for ambitious climate action.
Earlier today, Climate Change Minister Claire Perry told a fringe meeting the new plan would be released "within a few weeks" and would deliver fresh action to tackle emissions from business, buildings, and transport, as well as new moves to deliver carbon capture and storage in the UK.
Her comments followed Theresa May's recent trip to North America where she reasserted the UK's commitment to phasing out coal power by 2025 and delivering on the goals of the Paris Agreement. They also come ahead of speeches to the conference this afternoon from Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Business Secretary Greg Clark, where both cabinet ministers are expected to set out their plans to deliver green growth post-Brexit.
However, any attempts to introduce ambitious new climate policies is likely to face resistance from parts of the party, which remain ideologically hostile to action to curb emissions and are lobbying for Brexit to result in a tearing down of environmental policies, targets, and regulations. The extent to which the Conservative reputation for "weakness" on climate action remains in place will once again depend on the leadership's willingness and ability to face down this faction.
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