Anna Firth contested Erith & Thamesmead at the 2015 general election and is Cabinet member for Legal & Democratic Services at Sevenoaks District Council.
That young people do not like the Conservative Party is hardly news. But a post-election, Domino’s-fuelled focus group with ten teenagers in Kent gave rise to a fascinating insight.
With the refreshing simplicity of youth, they highlighted that it is not individual policies that are the problem but a contradiction that goes to the very heart of the Conservative message:
“If the Conservatives have run the economy so well for the last seven years, why is there no money for health, for education, for old people, for social care, etc, etc – which Labour say they will deliver. If the Conservatives have not run the economy very well, then surely it is time to let someone else have a go.”
We cannot have it both ways. We cannot claim to have both run the economy well, while all the time saying there is still no money.
Of course those of us prepared to go into the detail understand that this is the legacy many factors: five years in coalition with Nick Clegg; smoothing the financial crisis into “infinity and beyond”; the global financial crisis; the productivity challenge; the ageing population; etc.
But the electorate broadly, and the snapchat generation in particular, aren’t interested in the details. They simply want to see us walk our talk or let someone else takeover. So if we wish to regain the initiative and confine the last few dreadful weeks to history, we have no choice but to spend more money, because that is the only way that we can demonstrate the strength of our work.
As one teenager put it “the reward of dull, boring, sensible economic management (the party of Mum & Dad) must mean there is money to spend on things that everybody needs like hospitals, houses and schools?”
As Conservatives we can at least be sure to do it in a prudent, careful manner, mindful of the huge risks that still face a deficit driven economy. If Jeremy Corbyn takes control, the subsequent chaotic spending splurge will consign the country to economic oblivion. And those of us who lived through the 1970s will be responsible, because we know what will happen and we will have failed to stop it.
So where would I focus the spending? Clearly the young vote is key and our teenage focus group highlighted three key messages:
Tuition fees: The gap between the Conservatives offering students a millstone of £30,000 to £60,000 of debt around their necks, and Jeremy Corbyn offering nothing, is too wide, particularly when current estimates suggest that 60 per cent of student debt is not going to be repaid anyway.
Clearly as Conservatives we should adapt Labour’s free for all so that at least those who have paid school fees for 10 years continue to contribute, but the current differential is electoral suicide.
At the very least, the Chancellor should use the next Autumn Statement as an opportunity to correct the current punitive rate of interest on student loans (RPI + three per cent, amounting to 6.1 per cent from this autumn).
NHS: Young people are idealistic, and long may that continue. They want to be in a country that demonstrably cares for the sick and infirm (and so do most Conservatives) and they genuinely wanted to know why the Conservative manifesto was so heartless.
They also see the bigger picture: “We should be thinking about the people coming after us. We should invest more in the NHS. It’s healthcare, it’s one of the basic things. People in poorer countries are trying to get their health care up so we should do the same”.
Personal experience suggests that there is shocking waste in the Health Service, but also that the service is falling over. The facts are inescapable. G7 countries spend an average of 11.3 per cent of GDP on health, whilst we in the UK spend only 9.9 per cent. We have to commit to close that gap, or we lose.
Housing: Young people aspire to owning a home of their own, but they see this dream disappearing before their eyes.
Much has already been written on this site about the need to build more homes in this country, but if the older generation can be bribed with free bus passes, winter fuel allowances, and inflation-protected pensions, then why not return to an old Labour policy (copied and extended by Mrs Thatcher) and offer mortgage interest relief to firstitime buyers only (MIRAS)?
This was very popular among the under-35’, and with interest rates set to rise would be a welcome fillip for young people. It is also arguable far fairer, simpler, and more effective in promoting 21st Century home ownership then the current raft of housing interventions.
Finally, although thousands of words have already been written about the dire Conservative social media campaign, our focus group confirmed every one of them. Labour’s snapchat filters, Facebook ads, click bait, Buzzfeed posts, and memes were, quite simply, way more catchy and appealing, and thus ten times more likely to be shared.
As one teenager pointed out: “when the only person in your 500 Facebook friendship group publicly “liking” Theresa May’s Facebook page is the son of a Conservative councillor you know it would be social suicide to follow suit”.
Money spent on top digital graphic design is money well spent since, if the content is good enough, young people will naturally do the rest. Furthermore, why not encourage youth membership by allowing the under-21’s to join the Party free? With membership for the under-21’s in single figures in many Associations the cost would be peanuts, yet an army of loyal digital foot soldiers would pay for themselves many times over.
The Labour Party have always been dreamers. Conservatives have always been pragmatists. But if we want the young to vote for us, we need to be pragmatic dreamers. Twelve months ago, when Theresa May delivered her first statement as Prime Minister in Downing Street, we had that dream – to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.
The public shared that dream. That is why we entered the election with the most popular PM for 40 years and 20 points ahead in the opinion polls.
Let’s use this election as a wake-up call to get back on track. If we do, I have no doubt the youth will be with us.