Cllr Binita Mehta is the Conservative Group Leader on Watford Borough Council
As a 24 year old Conservative councillor, privileged to represent my home town of Watford, I felt disappointed after a triumphant election to read about young people who were too ashamed to admit that they voted Tory. Being a young, ethnic minority woman, I have first hand experience of people expecting me to conform to a left-wing stereotype, but I am a proud to be Conservative. Sure enough, in the response to George Osborne’s Summer Budget, some commentators reverted to type in suggesting that young people would be the most disappointed by the announcements.
How insulting! Why should young people feel ashamed to support the introduction of a Living Wage, or clamping down on the gender pay gap? Why should young people feel ashamed to pay less income tax, or get on the housing ladder through Help to Buy? But – as with so many stereotypes – it’s also completely unfounded and wrong.
When writing for British Future’s Generation 2012 report, I found that my generation of young people are marked out by their optimism, their common sense liberalism and their sense of personal responsibility. Research by Demos in 2013 found that, compared to their parents, today’s teenagers are more responsible when it comes to drink and drugs; more caring about social issues in the UK and abroad; and more willing to get out and take action to make the world a better place. Just as the polls were wrong about the election result, politicians have profoundly misunderstood what motivates young people in a digital, interconnected world.
David Cameron has never received enough credit for identifying the modern social mission that would lead the Conservatives back into power. Much derided as the “hug a hoodie” agenda, his winning formula is to believe that everyone has the motivation and ability to contribute to society. Young people feel this more keenly than any other group.
So in the same way that the Prime Minister has proven our party to be firmly on the side of working people by increasing take-home pay and wages, a majority Conservative Government now has the opportunity to redefine the centre-ground based on what is offered to young people growing up in the UK.
Alongside setting the expectation that young people “earn or learn” after school, offering National Citizen Service for all young people at the age of 16 sets a new rite of passage to becoming a thriving adult. Young people choose to do NCS, giving up their summer to learn skills, step out of their comfort zone and serve others. Young people who complete NCS are not just more employable – they’re also happier, more confident and more compassionate.
Why not extend the expectation we have of young people even further: to “earn, learn or serve”? Conservatives can be rightfully satisfied about the five million apprenticeships we aim to have achieved by the end of this Parliament. Alongside that, the Government should look to set up even more committed forms of citizen service for young people as a natural progression for NCS graduates. In the US, government-backed Americorps offers young people an intensive year of voluntary service. The model has already started here in this country with City Year UK, which recruits young people in Birmingham, London, and recently Manchester to serve in inner-city schools as mentors and role models for struggling pupils.
But why begin at the age of 16? Opportunities to take part in social action should be provided in primary and secondary schools to embed the experience of serving your community into education and encourage more young people to sign on to the successful NCS scheme. Charities, such as those who have come together as Generation Change, should be supported and expanded to fulfil this role. This is close to home for me: my former school, Watford Grammar School for Girls, has worked with Free The Children to inspire pupils to take action through fundraising and campaigning – and I know personally how much being involved in service as a volunteer, charity trustee and school governor has enriched my skills and continues to do so.
Now that Cameron has won a majority government, Conservatives can be bolder in their mission to make social action a core part of young people’s pathways into adulthood. As the CBI and CIPD make clear, this is the right way to be investing in young people’s futures, and my firm belief is that these efforts from my party are a sure way to grow our support amongst voters even further.
ampaigning in Watford, we turned a three-way marginal to a near 10,000 majority in a General Election in which pollsters expected traditional voters to return to Labour. This experience showed me that people’s expectations of what it means to vote Conservative is rapidly changing, allowing us to build support across all ages and backgrounds. With more young people than ever turning out to vote at the last election, if the Government gets it right over the next five years, it’ll be young people who lead us to an even bigger majority in 2020.