Will Bickford Smith is a Government consultant and a committee member of the Conservative Education Society. He is a former teacher and a Teach First Ambassador.
As the bright minds at CCHQ add their final touches to the Conservative election manifesto, media speculation continues to go round in circles, asking questions about the same few policies: will the Tories scrap the ‘triple lock’ on pensions? Will they commit to not increasing VAT and income tax? Will they drop their previous pledge to cut immigrations to the ‘tens of thousands’?
Very little ink, however, is expended writing about policies that will directly benefit young people. As Fraser Nelson pointed out last week, “for some time now, the Tories have pursued a relentless policy of bribing older voters because they are more likely to turn up on polling day. They are offered free TV licenses, free bus passes and lower taxes. And for the young: nothing but platitudes, cuts and tuition fees”. Whilst this might make sense electorally, it’s based on general assumption that once these young people grow up and enter the workforce, a switch will click and they will suddenly vote Conservative. To be fair, this appears to have happened in past decades, as working people saw their incomes and standards of living rise. But strategists should not be so complacent; history is not a proxy for future success.
Our education system is failing to equip thousands of young people with even the most basic of skills, with English teenagers aged 16-19 having the worst literacy levels and the second worst numeracy levels in the OECD for this age group.
Those who do succeed academically and head to university, will graduate with colossal debts and go on to work in jobs that leave them unfulfilled, with the labour market not adapting to make the most of their skills and talents. Meanwhile, the youth unemployment rate is more than double the general unemployment rate.
Pay for under-30s is stagnating, with the Resolution Foundation recently raising the prospect that millennials could be the first ever generation to earn less than their predecessors over the course of their working lives.
Home ownership is a distant dream for many, with the average house price costing 7.6 times the average salary – double the figure of 20 years ago, according to the ONS. A quarter of young adults in the UK are still living with their parents, and ‘generation rent’ are paying eye-watering amounts on rent to private landlords, stifling their ability to save for the future.
Indeed, as young people glance over their shoulders at their parents and grandparents, it is understandable why they feel a sense of unfairness. Their elders enjoyed free higher education and more affordable housing in their youth, the benefits of deregulation and popular capitalism in the 1980s, and have now retired at a fairly young age on final-salary pensions and the ‘triple-lock’ state pension. Research suggests that today’s young will be net contributors to the welfare state, whilst the baby boomer generation will be net beneficiaries. These social benefits are increasingly unlikely to be available to today’s young when they finally retire (well into their 70s).
These aren’t the whinges of an ungrateful generation; it’s a plea for help from a generation who feel the social contract between generations is being cut up. Young people understand that their parents and grandparents worked hard for what they’ve got. They recognise that they enjoy many luxuries not available to previous generations. But they are also worried about getting on in the workplace, keeping their household debts manageable, raising a family in a home of their own, and saving up for the future. These are values that Conservatives holds dear, so the party of giving a ‘hand-up’ must not be seen as pulling up the drawbridge to young people.
After all, it is the older generation who have built a country skewed in their own interests, whilst failing to pay equal attention to the plight of the young. It’s not the young who poured billions of pounds into schools whilst leaving many without the ability to read or write. It’s not the young who decided to create a bloated higher education sector whilst failing to see through any long-term reforms to vocational and technical education. It’s not the young who have shunned difficult decisions on tackling childhood obesity and underfunded mental health services. It’s not the young who have failed to build enough affordable housing. Indeed, it’s not the young who voted for Brexit, with the undeniable short-term uncertainty it now brings.
Appealing to the young is not just vital for the future the country; it’s vital for the future of the Conservative Party, when the average age of the Party’s (dwindling) membership is in its late fifties. Where is the fresh supply of young members who will add energy to campaigning now and become the councillors and parliamentary candidates of the future? I’ve been a member of Tory associations where I was the only activist under the age of 50.
With Theresa May stating in her first conference speech that there is “a growing divide between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation”, it’s time for those words to be replaced by actions.
The 2017 Conservative manifesto should be the start of a plan to win over a generation of young voters. It needs to outline plans to get fresh leadership into schools to tackle educational underperformance, build a world-leading vocational and technical education pathway, and improve careers advice in schools and colleges. The construction of a million new, affordable homes (as well as more social housing and retirement homes that the elderly actually want to move into), greater regeneration of our regions to offer attractive alternatives to London, and incentives to banks to offer an improved savings and investment vehicle for the under-35s, would all act as a springboard for young people.
Ultimately, the creation of a financially sustainable pensions, healthcare and social care system, would all serve to strengthen the social contract between generations. And to be radical, how about introducing compulsory voting for first-time voters, so that politicians are forced to better balance the needs of the young with the needs of the elderly?