Our mini-series this week on intergenerational unfairness – kicked off by Jonathan Isaby yesterday and continued today in an interview with David Willetts – is intended to encourage the Conservative Party and the wider centre right movement to ask itself difficult questions.
When, as The Times reports, pensioners are now better off than those of working age, there is an evident imbalance. When the system of pensioner benefits which provides much of that income is funded largely by the current taxes of those very same, worse off, workers (not, as is often claimed, by accrued taxes from the past) that imbalance begins to look particularly unfair. When one considers that those workers can never realistically expect to enjoy such levels of benefits in their own retirement – not least because not a penny of their own taxes is set aside for that day – it becomes a wonder that there is not more intergenerational tension in our politics. The news that tax credits are to be cut while pension growth is guaranteed by the triple lock is just another straw added to an increasingly rickety camel.
This imbalance is in large part down to a single, cold fact: far more older people than young people vote. Among 18-24s, turnout in May was a miserable 43 per cent. Among over-65s, it was 78 per cent. Politicians and electoral strategists pay attention to such facts for obvious reasons – democracy, after all, is about doing what the people want.
To that extent, the fact that the young get a raw deal when compared to their grandparents could be said to be self-inflicted. If your vote can’t be won, then why expect anyone to seek it?
But sustainable politics demands more than such short term calculations. The purpose of the Conservative Party is not simply to win elections, it is to champion certain values once those elections have been won. The prospect of a generation unable to pursue the lives which Conservatives believe are the greatest expression of those values – by getting a good job, being able to afford a good home, and having enough money spare to save for a crisis or for eventual retirement – is a depressing one.
As we argued in the ConservativeHome manifesto:
‘Homes. Jobs. Savings. These are the building blocks of personal liberty and a free society. And yet they are under threat. In the previous century progress was made on all three fronts, but since the Millennium, home ownership has declined, wages have stagnated and the savings habit has given way to a culture of debt. Having led this country out of the deepest recession since the war, the Conservative Party now faces an even bigger challenge – to halt and reverse the decline of the mass middle class.’
Failure to halt and reverse that decline would be a moral abdication on the part of the Conservative Party. A nation whose children are less well off than their parents is not doing its job. Choosing to entrench such unfairness is to choose to manage decline rather than challenging and overcoming it.
Such a failure would also store up electoral problems for Conservatives – despite those raw turnout numbers. A society with less work, more welfare dependency, less home ownership, more people trapped in the costly and insecure life of a tenant, fewer prospects for improving the lot of oneself and one’s family, no savings to speak of and crippling state and personal debts is not fertile territory for Tory politicians.
Conservatives believe in the twin turbines of a healthy society: opportunity and responsibility. We currently deny the young the former but load them with the latter, while older people enjoy the far more preferable reverse. Restoring some semblance of balance would be good for the nation, and good for our Party, too.