Nick Faith is Director of Communications at Policy Exchange.
Walk into any student halls and I wager that you won’t find too many posters of great Conservative figures of the past. Certainly when I was an undergraduate (admittedly a fair few years ago!) the internal décor was socialist-chic. Pictures of Che Guevara, Tony Benn and even Lenin (and, no, I wasn’t rooming with Michael Gove) were the mainstay. Funnily enough, there weren’t too many images of Thatcher, Disraeli or Churchill.
Students tend to want to change the world. Left-wing revolutionary figures who stood up for social justice and fought the ‘Establishment’ on the side of the poor and the vulnerable are revered. Yet as these young men and women leave university and begin their journey into the world of work, something strange happens. Like a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, they become increasingly conservative and individualistic. Earning more money, buying their first home, starting a pension, meeting their life partner and having their first child tends to change their outlook on life. They begin to think about voting and potentially even voting Conservative.
This is historically what has happened. But, as Bob Dylan once said:“the times they are a-changing”. And they are changing quickly. The effects of the financial crash and subsequent recession have focused the minds of this generation of graduates. Jobs are harder to come by. Wages have failed to keep up with inflation. Childcare costs are soaring and the quality of care variable depending where you live. It is now almost impossible to get a foot on the property ladder without significant help from the bank of mum and dad. Gone are the days when you can rely on a steady pension to support you in later life.
The British Social Attitudes survey also shows that younger people are less interested in where you’ve come from but what you can contribute to Britain.
“Younger generations are less likely than their elders to think that ascribed factors such as being born in Britain, being Christian or having British ancestry matter in determining whether or not someone is ‘really’ British. Consequently, as older generations die out, we would expect to see a gradual increase in the proportion of people who think that only civic, and not ethnic, factors matter.”
This is a generation growing up in an increasingly globalised and fast evolving world. The colour of someone’s skin doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Their religion is irrelevant. What they expect is a fair crack of the whip. A chance to make something of their lives.
Politicians, especially those on the Centre-Right, have tended to focus their efforts on winning over older voters. Protecting retirees’ benefits such as winter fuel payments and free bus passes has been a non-negotiable to date. Whereas working age benefits have been slashed and will continue to feel the brunt of the government’s axe well into the next Parliament. From a purely political perspective you can understand this approach. It is estimated that 52 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted at the 2010 election, compared to 75 per cent of over 65 year olds. Around half of all people aged 17-24 aren’t even registered to vote.
It would, however, be remiss of all parties to ignore younger voters. The longer it takes to save up enough money to buy a home, the harder it is to plan for the future, the less secure it is to find a sustainable job, the more resentful that generation will become. While younger voters are no different from the rest of the population in their disdain for the political classes, they are not particularly wedded to any one tribe, especially as they grow older.
Fairness, family and financial security are at the heart of everything. And the Conservatives have a strong story to tell – to a point. The coalition’s stewardship of the public finances must be praised. The number of people in work is a remarkable feat and the number of new private sector jobs is proof that the economy is slowly returning to something resembling normality. But there is more that can be done to ensure younger people feel that the government is standing up for them as a well as their parents and grandparents.
- Building more, good quality homes must be a priority for the next parliament. A garden city or two would help alleviate the supply side pressure and allow younger generations to grow up close to their families and support networks.
- Extending the National Insurance exemption to 25 year olds will encourage employers of all sizes to take on a greater number of younger workers.
- Improving the quality of childcare by taking away free childcare entitlement for the wealthiest parents and using the money to improve Sure Start centres in the most deprived areas of the country.
The modern day Conservative Party is genuinely one that is both fiscally conservative and socially liberal. This reflects the viewpoint of large parts of the electorate – not least younger generations. It would be short sighted not to ensure that today’s graduates aren’t welcomed by a party that not only has a long term economic plan which will directly benefit them and their families but also believes in helping the poorest in society.
I wonder if one day Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Theresa May and Liz Truss will be the political revolutionaries adorning the walls of student digs the length and breadth of the country?