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How the Tories could conjure a youthquake The Conservatives could be doomed if they don't win over the under-30s

'I don't care if you're seven, I said "vote for me!"'. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe - WPA Pool/Getty Images

'I don't care if you're seven, I said "vote for me!"'. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe - WPA Pool/Getty Images

December 5, 2019   10 mins

Whatever happens in the election next week, we can be sure of one thing – the Tories will do terribly among young people. Although not quite so bad as last time, when they were annihilated, the Conservatives continue to poll extremely badly among the under-30s and barely much better among 30-somethings. They do especially poorly among young women. Yet it hasn’t always been that way: in 1979 and 1987 the party won over 40% of the youth vote, suggesting that the young can be wooed with the right message.

With that in mind, we’ve asked a number of commentators and contributors to suggests what the party could do to reverse the problem.

Guaranteed home ownership
Peter Franklin, Associated Editor, UnHerd 

Housing isn’t the only reason for the great generational divide in politics, but it is a huge one, and something the Government can do something about. When your most vivid experience of capitalism is paying half or more of your salary to a private landlord every month, Corbynism doesn’t seem so bad.

The Conservative manifesto should have offered hope for change, but didn’t, but is there anything the Conservatives could offer that Labour couldn’t outflank by promising to spend another zillion pounds on it? Yes. Labour wants us to be tenants of the state — the last thing that socialists want is a surge of home ownership among younger voters. So Conservatives should guarantee an affordable home for every 25 to 50 year old with a record of regular employment.

But how? “Just build more houses” won’t work. The big developers have easily enough planning permissions to build all the houses they want — i.e. not enough to threaten their profits on land speculation. It’s time to break their oligopoly.

Communities should be empowered to purchase land at agricultural-use values and systematically prepare the sites for development. Each plot could be secured without having to fund a lottery win for some lucky landowner; builders would compete on the basis of efficiency and quality, not privileged influence over the planning system, thus bringing down construction costs as well as land costs. Therefore, homes could be offered at a price well below market levels.

Needless to say, private landlords, second homeowners and all absentee property investors would be excluded; meanwhile, local people and first-time buyers would be given priority. The catch for purchasers is that the terms on which they bought their homes would also apply when re-selling them. So, no windfall profits for them either.

Is this capitalism? Perhaps not, but it isn’t socialism either. Rather, it’s a vision for an inclusive, property-owning democracy, and the Conservatives should embrace it — before it’s too late.

Become the women’s party again
Zoe Strimpel, historian and writer

Between the authoritarian narcissism of the new Left and the shrill nastiness of the alt-Right there is a large hole in the market for a decent, principled Tory party. But winning over the young will require more than lame slogans; it will mean reinstating classical liberalism where it belongs at the heart of the Conservative Party. Here are some ways it can honour these — and seduce the young:

Firstly, it should show proper engagement with gender issues, and particularly women’s health. The Tory Party is, contrary to its reputation, the party of women — from the enormously influential mixed-gender Primrose League in 1885 to its two lady PMs, both of whom respected abortion rights.

It should take bold stances on women’s reproductive health and freedom. This means affirming commitment to the abortion time limit at 24 weeks, making it easier to have an abortion by funding more clinics (current wait-times can be traumatic); radically cutting the price of the morning-after pill to £5 (it’s currently £15-£35), and injecting cash into rape crisis centres. Rape crisis provision rose by 9% in 2018 (under Tory governance), but 6,000 victims, including 172 children, were still on waiting lists for help by the end of March this year. Young people, with #MeToo on their mind, care deeply about this.

An entrepreneurial and rich society is not hamstrung by helping the destitute — it’s strengthened by doing so. The Tories should demonstrate seriousness about helping those most in need by injecting mega-cash into tackling homelessness; it’s not just London Lefties who see the tragic increase in people living on the streets and think the Tories will make it even worse. It does not have to be that way.

Classical liberals — aka the best Tories — understand the importance of free speech and freedom in artistic creation and have watched their erosion with horror. Instead of railing at the warriors of woke (epitomised by “millennial snowflakes”), the Tories need to come up with an audacious and positive commitment to free speech.

They should establish a body that oversees the funding of a protected space for arts and institutional life that is completely free of the constraints of PC police. The free speech body should also closely monitor infringements. Thanks to schemes such as “decolonise the curriculum”, inclusion policies and safe space marshalling, universities are particularly stuffed with those who infringe free speech rights — of students, fellow staff and visitors — and those who do so should feel the consequences.

Finally, the Tories should commit to simple, effective schemes that encourage and reward commercial inventiveness and ambition, through a mixture of well-publicised tax breaks, prestigious training schemes and awards.

Don’t make the young pay for the old
Mary Harrington, UnHerd columnist

The Tories should stop treating young people like idiots and tackle some issues head on: the ageing population, the housing crisis, the funding gap in health and social care, and the state of the public finances.

A bold approach would be a “social solidarity bonus”, based on a presumption that if the next generation wishes to inherit a nest egg from granny’s property and assets after she dies, then they cannot simply expect the state to stump up the cost of caring for her as she gets older and frailer.

I am talking, of course, about the “dementia tax”, the much-reviled attempt in Theresa May’s 2017 manifesto to grasp the nettle of the growing adult social care funding gap, by proposing that the value of a pensioner’s home should be included in an assessment of their assets when providing home-based care. At present this is only the case when someone moves into residential care.

To be an authentically conservative policy, the presumption behind the social solidarity bonus should be that families are both able and willing to put effort into caring for one another, rather than relying on the state. And further, that if they do so they should be free to inherit from the older generation without the Exchequer helping itself too liberally to the legacy.

The “dementia tax” should be seen as a last resort: a levy on those who will not meet their obligations. Why should the middle-aged pocket the sale value of granny’s house after she dies while allowing the state to bear the cost of caring for her up to that point?

To support the social solidarity bonus, new incentives could encourage families to upsize to a property large enough to have room for granny — perhaps a relaxation of the tax rules around gifts and inheritance tax, or even grants towards moving house, or stamp duty relief on house sales and purchases. In exchange, families would have to be willing to shoulder more of the obligations of social care.

The move toward multigenerational households would free up the housing market and create opportunities for multi-family households to share costs, resources and communal life — even childcare — freeing up smaller properties and providing a leg up to young people struggling to meet the cost of living and save enough to get onto the housing ladder themselves. It would also help to address the widespread problem of loneliness among the elderly, as it became more commonplace for older people to live in households that also contained children.

Rescue our towns
Sebastian Giraud, UnHerd contributor and politico

Go to almost any middle-sized town the length and breadth of the country and the same scene will greet you: dilapidated bus shelters, abandoned paint-flicked shops, a broken window or two and the obligatory betting shop. Regardless how hard small shopkeepers sweat away, making their corner as enticing as possible to those passers-by, they know as well as anyone that they’re up against the app that delivers tomorrow, or the “experience” of a trip to the nearest city centre where everything is manicured, perfumed and glossed to perfection.

What sort of message does it give those young people as they start thinking about what life has in store, that capitalism, the council, those big companies or whoever has hollowed out the heart of their community? That there are more shops that used to be something, and that the only places that seem worth popping into are those that will take your money in exchange for a pint or a betting slip?

No government of any hue have adequately tried to prioritise or grapple with this issue of dilapidated high streets. It is one that urgently needs addressing to prevent the tide of talent scurrying off to large cities, preserve local culture and identity and give every community and the young people that live there a sense of hope and possibility.

This is a natural issue that speaks to the core of Conservative values and an issue the Tories have a real chance to grasp and tackle, and so win the respect of a whole new generation of voter. What is more enterprising than providing bursaries for a young person with an idea to stay within their community to start their business, or providing an incentive for entrepreneurs to take a shop that needs some extra work, rather than the fancier one down the road?

Rather than give unquestioned tax relief for the landlords of empty premises sat waiting for the tides to change, it should be conditional on their shopfronts being presentable and useful to the community: who knows, it may even encourage someone to rent it, or even better, choose to turn it back into a home.

Bring down the barriers
Rakib Ehsan, Research fellow on radicalisation and integration

As a millennial, anti-racist trade unionist who could never vote for the current Labour Party but will not opt for the Conservatives this time either, I would suggest a number of steps the Tories could take in increasing their appeal to younger sections of the British electorate.

For all the love I have for my country, I am firmly of the view that the British promise of meritocracy and equality of opportunity is nothing but a distant dream. The UK labour market continues to be plagued by racial and ethnic penalties, and a recent study by the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College found that British blacks and South Asians continued to face labour market discrimination at levels unchanged since the late 1960s.

Fighting this should not be seen as caving into leftist identity politics — it should be seen as a vital pursuit in the name of ensuring a more meritocratic allocation of rewards and opportunities in British society. The Tories should also be more honest over the implications of cuts made to legal aid, and the broader tightening of access to employment tribunals.

A British Conservative Party which seeks to rebalance labour-market relations more in favour of the worker, and is relentless in its pursuit of equality of opportunity, could make some headway with younger voters. It must acknowledge that barriers to upward mobility based on social class continue to persist — and thinking so does not make one a grievance-filled Marxist.

The Conservative Party must show that it is serious about providing a fair and meritocratic system which enables young people to maximise their potential. A party which will invest in technical colleges, as well as offering maintenance grants for talented students from deprived backgrounds. Along with ensuring that public services are well-funded, it must also better support the training of future domestic medical staff and social carers.

Help students get out of debt
Danielle Boxall, UnHerd AudioVisual Producer

Labour captured the student vote in 2017 with its free tuition policy, and promise to wipe all student debt, while the Lib Dems, once the party of students, have never recovered from the coalition’s raising of fees and Nick Clegg’s “Sorry” video (and its subsequent parodies).

Since fees were raised in 2012, graduates in work have been paying the price for their degree with a loan of around £50,000. And that loan is increasing, at a top rate of 6.3% this year, all because the loan now bases inflation against the outdated RPI, making it more expensive than a mortgage — but good luck getting one of those!

It is a completely un-Conservative policy. The debt is building up faster than students can pay it back, and interest is even piled on during the years of study, when students have no means of paying back. Over the years it accrues, and working graduates pay back hundreds of thousands in their lifetime, disincentivising the ambitious young people the party should be aiming to attract. Only the top 17% of earners clear the debt before the 30-year cut off, meaning taxpayers bear the cost of 47% of it. So much for the party of low tax.

In their manifesto, the Tories said they would “look at the interest rates on loan repayments with a view to reducing the burden of debt”. With mass spending already committed to, why won’t the party go one further and finally move over to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and save graduates up to £16,000 in debt?

Tackle the Gig Economy
James Billot, UnHerd trainee

A Conservative Government could work to restore its business-friendly credentials by focusing minds on the UK’s rapidly expanding gig economy. Around two-thirds of the country’s 4.7 million gig workers are aged 16-34, making it an attractive sector for the Tories to make inroads.

They should start by enacting the The Good Work Plan. So far, the government has been sluggish in implementing some of its proposals and even watered down parts of it. In other areas, the Plan does not go far enough. For instance, the right for workers to request predictable hours after 26 weeks of service can, as the TUC notes, be swatted away by their employer. The Tories should introduce a right, not merely a request, for workers at large companies to have predictable hours after the same time period.

So far, so Labour. But where the Tories can distinguish themselves is in creating the conditions for small business to thrive in the gig economy. This is not a dog whistle for banning Uber or Deliveroo, but more needs to be done to tackle platform monopolies that dominate certain industries in this sector. By exploiting network effects, these large companies stifle competition through aggressive price cutting and prevent new entrants from entering the market.

The Tories should use Brexit to update and modernise the 1998 Competition Act, which would prevent excessive concentration in the shared economy and allow smaller companies to challenge the big beasts.

Like it or not, the gig economy has been woven into the fabric of modern working life. As it expands, the Tories cannot afford to be sluggish in dealing with its adverse effects (endless “consultations” won’t cut it) while harnessing its potential. Strategically, it makes sense too: young, urban voters are hardly a demographic that the Tories over-perform in.

Save the cost of tuition fees
Ben Sixsmith, writer

You can explain to young people that more and more students entering higher education means that it will be more and more expensive. You can explain to them that people who struggled to find good careers after entering the workforce had no immediate obligation to clear their debts. It will make no difference. The plain truth is that, however reasonable a Conservative might have thought it was to raise fees, young people saw and will always see the demand to pay for their tuition as a demand to pay for something that others had for free.

Fortunately, there is a response: you don’t have to pay it, you don’t even have to go to university! The preposterous inflation of the university system, egged on by a gurning Tony Blair, encouraged the rise of credentialism and, thus, an artificial need for a degree which might have been acquired by means which had little to no inherent worth in terms of education and personal development.

Let’s cut our higher education system down to size. People can save time and money, and will not be forced to wallow in student grievances and fears for their adulthood. Give them work experience! Give them work! Hell, give them a few grand and a gap year. Universities are an essential asset for civilisations, but so is the Armed Forces and we don’t demand that everyone join that.

Various Contributors bringing a range of different voices.


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