The Conservatives have a problem with the young. They don’t like us. As Gideon Skinner and Kully Kaur-Ballagan of Ipsos Mori pointed out in yesterday’s Red Box, age was the greatest dividing factor in the general election since records began in 1979, with Labour enjoying a 20 per cent swing among those aged between 18 and 34.
The worst thing that the Conservatives can do in response to this is to “act cool”, to develop new policies which would be patently targeted at the young. As any parent knows, the one sure way of further alienating a grumpy teenager is to take to the dance floor.
Fortunately, there is no need for them to do this. For as Daniel Mahoney and I explain today in Offering the Young a Good Deal, many Conservative policies would, if properly explained, be inherently attractive to the young. Take “austerity”. There are only three ways to deal with debt: to pay it off, to inflate it away or to default. The last two would be disastrous for everyone, but particularly the young. So the Conservative plan to balance the books (although not until 2025) should have some merit in their eyes. But adding at least £150 billion over five years to the national debt, as Jeremy Corbyn proposed, is simply spending more money now for the young to pay back when they are older.
Or take jobs. The Conservatives were virtually silent on the extraordinary success of the growth in employment since 2010. Shortly before the election, the total number of people in work in the UK hit a new high of 74.8 per cent – the best since records began in 1971. Compare that to youth unemployment in many of the countries of the EU: 24 per cent in France, 35 per cent in Italy, 42 per cent in Spain, 46 per cent in Greece. The UK? Youth unemployment is just 12 per cent. We didn’t hear much about that during the election.
But what we did hear about was Labour’s proposal to remove university tuition fees and restore maintenance grants. How could that not be attractive to students (and indeed their parents)? Yet what was not explained was that, as the Department for Education states, graduates earn an average of nearly £10,000 more a year. So this would in effect be a massive subsidy from low earners to the rich. And it would be expensive, costing at least £11 billion (the equivalent of an additional 3p on the basic rate of income tax). Had the Conservative Party attacked the policy on these grounds, as well as highlighting the progressive way in which tuition fees are paid in proportion to income, this could have done much to counter Labour’s pledge.
Similarly, the Conservatives could have done more to highlight their own socially liberal record. For example, the Equal Marriage Act, the Modern Slavery Act and the reforms to stop and search laws – all recent Conservative initiatives – were barely mentioned. They could also have gone further in addressing the housing crisis where younger voters need to see dramatic action if they are ever to get on the property ladder. And, instead of poorly explained proposals to make the elderly and their families pay for social care, they could have done more to address “intergenerational unfairness”: we are now in the extraordinary position whereby pensioner incomes after housing costs are now higher than those of a typical working age household. The introduction of an Office of Intergenerational Responsibility could, for example, produce inter-generational impact assessments to scrutinise all tax reliefs and exemptions. And a flat rate of income tax relief on pensions could save more than £10 billion a year, freeing up resources could be used for the benefit of all generations.
So, yes, the Conservatives should show a sensitivity to the concerns of the young. Not by pandering to them or by preaching to them. But by treating their arguments with respect and good humour, however intense the provocation from the outer fringes of Labour supporters. And to do this, as the Centre for Policy Studies is now exploring, why not take the battle to the young and tour the universities and sixth form colleges to debate how free-market policies are the best way forward?
Global poverty? Explain that it is not aid but the extension of free markets that has led to the extraordinary and unprecedented fall in absolute poverty from 44 per cent of the world’s population in 1980 to under 10 per cent today. Cheaper fruit and veg? Demonstrate that poorer nations globally, and poorer households domestically, suffer from policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy and that Brexit gives the UK a chance to put this right. More government investment? Show that this means that they, the young, will eventually have to pick up the bill for more state spending, determined by Whitehall.
Those of a conservative disposition have much to be proud of – apart from their failure to extol the benefits of why their policies tend to be so much more effective than those of the left (did anyone mention Venezuela during the election?). So stop being shy and hit the road!
This piece was originally published by the Times Red Box.