Yuan Yi Zhu is a research fellow at the University of Oxford.
By and large, British Conservatives seem to be resigned to the fact that young people are not going to vote for them. Recent news that a fantastical two per cent of British voters between the ages of 18 and 24 planned to vote Tory -a figure literally within the polling margin of error – barely made a ripple, as the party busies itself crafting new pensioner-friendly policies to shore up its core vote.
The contrast with the situation in Canada could not be starker. There, the country’s Conservative Party has been polling the highest among 18-to-34-year-olds, with 47 per cent within that age group planning to vote for or leaning toward the Tories to the Liberals’ 27 per cent. Tory support is weakest among the 65+, among whom Liberals lead with 40 per cent to the Tories’ 30 per cent.
In other words, Canada is an outlier from almost every single one of its peer countries, where the young vote left and the old vote right. How did Canada’s Tories, the country’s natural second-place party, manage to upend one of politics’ seemingly immutable laws?
Much of the credit has to go to Pierre Poilievre, the new Canadian Tory leader. Almost the party’s first millennial head (he missed the age cut-off by six months), Poilievre campaigned energetically for the under-40ish vote during his leadership campaign, a strategy which paid off handsomely.
His main wedge issue has been housing affordability. Ridiculous as it may seem, Canada, one of the world’s least densely populated countries, suffers from the same sort of dysfunctional housing market which seems to afflict every developed English-speaking democracy.
To take but one example, house prices in Toronto’s unattractive suburbs rival London prices, without the amenities of the latter. The city is surrounded by a development-killing green belt, in a country which is certainly not short on nature.
For the past year, the housing crisis has been a central plank of Poilievre’s messaging. Which is not to say the Liberals don’t pay lip service to the issue. But having been in power for almost a decade during which house prices have broken all records, they are simply not seen as credible on it.
Coupled with the need to ringfence the house value gains made by the older, house-owning demographic which form the core of the Liberal base, whatever measures the Trudeau government can introduce (most recently a temporary ban on foreign buyers) can be only limited in scope and effect. Young voters seem to realize this, as does Poilievre’s team.
This brings us to the other half of the story, namely the Liberal dominance among older voters, seemingly in defiance of the ordinary laws of political physics. Much of it is due to Justin Trudeau’s shameless invocation of his family antecedents, namely the memory of his prime ministerial father and of the sense of 1970s optimism he embodied to the generation that grew up during that time.
Canadian baby boomers with fond memories of the ‘Trudeaumania’ which surrounded Trudeau Sr see in his son the continuation of that spirit, of a time when Canada offered easy prosperity and when successive Liberal governments destroyed much of the British-infused cultural order of English Canada (Quebec never fell for the Trudeau charm) to usher in what seemed then a brave, multicultural, third-way future.
Many politician children of politicians seek to emerge from the familial shadow and forge a political identity of their own. Not so for Trudeau, who relishes in being defined as his father’s son, knowing the connotations of his family name for a generation of Canadians.
After all, he stormed the Liberal leadership race a decade ago by telling his audience that “I know there are those who say this movement we’re building is all about nostalgia, that’s it’s not really about me, or you, or Canada. Let’s face it, they say it’s about my father. To them I say this: it is. It is about my dad.”
To these voters, a Trudeau can do no wrong. They are insensitive to the crumbling healthcare system (except to the extent of believing any potential reform is a Tory plot to privatize the system, a dynamic which British readers may recognize), to the innumerable ethics scandals, to Canada’s crumbling international reputation, and of course, to the bubble-like housing market, which after all benefits them.
In the final reckoning, Canadian Conservatives’ success with younger voters and Liberals’ dominance among older voters is the result of the same intergenerational dynamics which exist in the UK and elsewhere, but with a reversed left-right party axis. Those in CCHQ who have by all appearances given up on winning the non-pensioner vote ever again might want to take note.