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Big question of the Tory conference: where are the youth?

The average age of party members is 72, and the conference felt like a large funeral

Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom: “I was a proponent of leave for your sake, for my kids’ sake, for the next generation.” Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Sitting in the Youth Zone at the Conservative conference in Manchester with Andrea Leadsom and her mother, it was hard to escape the conclusion that the party has a problem. Leadsom (54) was the star panellist in a discussion on how to appeal to the “Brexit generation”, which was defined as those who will spend most of their adult lives outside the EU.

The former Conservative leadership candidate, now Leader of the House of Commons, brought her mother and sister along for company and the organisers turfed some young people out of the front row to make room for them.

“Sometimes people say older people voted for leave, everybody young wanted to stay, but that is in my case absolutely not the case – I was a proponent of leave for your sake, for my kids’ sake, for the next generation,” Leadsom said.

“Now, for some of you, that might feel scary. For me, on your behalf, it feels really exciting.”

The average age of Conservative Party members is 72, and the conference had something of the gentle atmosphere of a large funeral, where little social effort is required because sparkle is neither expected nor appropriate. There were some young delegates, almost all of them men, many wearing three-piece suits and fervent expressions.

The DUP parties

Young people were well-represented at the DUP party, which was such a lively affair that the wine ran out. Last year the DUP caused a stir at the Conservative conference by hosting a Champagne reception. Their leader at Westminster, Nigel Dodds, observed that the Champagne would be more appropriate this year after the party’s success at June’s election left them holding Theresa May’s government by a £1 billion string.

Arlene Foster had little opportunity to enjoy the party because she was besieged by young delegates seeking selfies.

“I wish I could vote for her,” one young man told me, describing himself as a “fierce Brexiteer”.

Foster did nothing to cultivate her unexpected cult status in Manchester, although she accepted the adulation with good humour. The greatest fuss surrounded Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was surrounded by cameras and admirers everywhere he went. With his old-fashioned, double-breasted suits with vast lapels, the Somerset MP is, as Robert Harris put it “a barmaid’s dream of a gentleman”.

His fringe meetings were packed with fans eager to lap up the solid gold, personally monogrammed nonsense he poured out about Brexit.

“This is Magna Carta, it’s the Burgesses coming at Parliament, it’s the great reform bill, it’s the bill of rights, it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy. We win all of these things,” he said.

“We must make those arguments and young people will love it because we will be telling young people that they will determine their lives rather than having them determined for them by Monsieur Juncker. That must seem to me to be a more attractive prospect. Be of good cheer. We won. It is happening. Now what we have got to do is back Theresa May. ”

Accumulating capital

Back in the Youth Zone, James Crouch of pollsters Opinium was telling the Conservatives a few home truths about young voters. They voted Labour, he said, because on most of the issues that concern them, such as housing, education and secure employment, they felt the Conservatives had nothing to offer.

“There are some young voters who, on current voting intentions, are prepared to vote for the Conservative Party. The only issue is there’s actually quite a small number of them,” he said.

Stephen Canning, a 24-year-old Essex councillor who used to run the Conservative youth wing, agreed that Labour’s offer appeared more palatable to young voters.

Jeremy Corbyn was offering an all-you-can-eat buffet that someone else was going to pay for. Theresa May was offering a nutritious sports drink. It wasn’t that nice or tasty but it was good for you and good for the future,” he said.

Canning acknowledged that housing was a big issue but he thought the party should stop talking about how to get more young people on to the housing ladder.

“We’ve perhaps been talking too much about home ownership when for so many people of my generation, the idea of ever owning a home is so distant a thought, so impossible a reality, that we should be talking about landlord reform and rent,” he said.

And that, perhaps, is the problem. It’s hard to persuade people to back capitalism if even the Conservatives see no prospect of accumulating capital.