Cameron was better-placed to combat the youth-vote than May
In late 2015, it was hard to see Labour ever getting close to power again. After seeing the guiding hand of the Tories steer even a coalition with the Lib Dems to general success, the nation had backed Cameron and Osborne to go it alone. At this point it was difficult to find anybody in the parliamentary Labour party who would give Jeremy Corbyn half-marks, and despite prompting growth in party membership and clearly connecting with lots of young people, it was impossible to imagine the new leader being able to translate this into any sort of electoral success. David Cameron on the other hand was just getting going. He wouldn’t formally announce an EU referendum date until February, and he had unquestionably taken a great step towards neutralising what Theresa May famously described as criticism of “the nasty party”.
Indeed, Cameron’s compassionate conservatism was giving him access to parts of the electorate Tories had dreamed of influencing for years. In the previous government he oversaw the legalisation of same-sex marriage, enshrined in law the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on foreign aid, and then during the election campaign could cite more ethnic minority candidates than any other party leader, including in 18% of retirement seats. In October 2015 the Telegraph described him as “the new leader of the British left” who was “half way to being our most progressive Prime Minster” ever. The following month, he endorsed Gove’s prison reforms, emphasising the importance of rehabilitation rather than punishment, and once again condemned the lack of opportunity for people from ethnic minority communities.
The truth is, that these are all stances which our generation would not only praise but vote for. Theresa May though, has done nothing to maintain the reputation which Cameron took great pains in building. Admittedly, the Conservatives took a huge hit in youth opinion when the referendum was lost, but in the months following, Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm was blamed for the outcome as much as Cameron’s short-sightedness even from those within the Labour party. He was forced to fend off another leadership contest, and while Theresa May took the reigns virtually unchallenged it is now clear that she never made the most of that free time in order to understand the old wounds that the referendum loss had reopened for her party. Fast-forward, and she went all guns blazing into an election she did not need to have, spurred on by encouraging polls – utter stupidity considering events here and in the US over recent years.
Foreign aid is only one issue on which her cabinet had been far less convincing than Cameron’s prior to the campaign, and as it unfolded any liberal credentials she had quickly deserted her. She survived proposals to scrap free school meals relatively well compared to the examination of her tenure as home secretary, which culminated in scrutiny of the disastrous decision to cut policing – one area the bulk of both parties are surely united on in terms of the need for investment. Meanwhile, Corbyn was galvanising a youth vote who emerged as entirely ready to be woken. The momentum he gained meant that young people came out to vote on an unprecedented scale, but one wonders whether a more socially cognisant Tory leader could have combatted such a resurgence from Labour. If there is to be another election in a year or two then we must enter it with a Cameron rather than a May. Whoever is at the helm next has to understand the power of young people, and the compassionate policies which motivate them.