Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor and senior research fellow in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton. He has also written extensively on conservatism and the Conservative Party.
How can the Conservatives do more to win the support of young metropolitan voters? It’s tricky: David Cameron made some progress in that direction, but, like the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten, he and his acolytes have been removed from history (though history, in the shape of the Evening Standard, bites back daily). And Brexit, whatever its merits, is hardly going to set pro-European teenage hearts a-beating, even were it to be negotiated efficiently and competently.
According to the Daily Mail, stirring it as ever, a policy of slashing tuition fees is under discussion. One hopes that this retrograde and regressive idea will ultimately be rejected. Not only would it transfer money from relatively poor to relatively wealthy, but such a move would be unaffordable and make a funding squeeze on higher education more likely. Surely someone somewhere will read Nick Clegg’s memoirs, and learn the lesson that the inevitable cancellation of a popular but unaffordable promise wipes out any cheap kudos that it might have gained.
Far from competing with the bottomless pit of Jeremy Corbyn’s imagination to find the best bribe for ‘the young’, it will be more sensible to learn the arts of communicating with them first. This suggests a few obvious things.
First, get a sensible social media strategy in place. The Conservatives aren’t going to compete with trendier opposition parties any time soon in the short-attention-span digital world, but being able to get messages heard, engage in debate, rebut Labour positions and respond to criticisms is a sine qua non for making progress in this demographic group. The Tories need a lot of advice here – but don’t they have contacts in the worlds of business and media, and in the innovative world of US politics?
Second, the young are relatively left-wing as a group. It follows from that that while they enjoy the tribalism of Corbyn, John McDonnell, Caroline Lucas, Nicola Sturgeon et al, they are turned off by tribalism of the right – the Conservatives’ as much as UKIP’s. That implies that, rather than the aggressive rhetoric of the election campaign, the Tories should be talking up consultation and cooperation with other parties, as it is reported that Theresa May will propose today.
Labour, from Wilson to Blair to Corbyn, has always struggled with the progressive alliance: they like it in principle, but they are always too close to an outright majority to embrace it wholeheartedly. If the Tories spoke this sort of language (and meant it), they would therefore pose a tricky problem for Corbyn. And serious overtures to the other parties would help break down the virulent anti-Toryism across the opposition.
Third, remember that May’s manifesto actually contained interesting stuff for the younger generation in terms of rebalancing the economy in their direction – building houses, removing the triple lock from pensions, means-testing Winter Fuel Payments, and even the dementia tax (of which more below). These were all communicated successfully to the elderly, who immediately fainted dead away in horror. But no-one bothered to mention these to young people, or to describe them as pro-youth policies.
Fourth, framing is important. Read Daniel Kahneman, the world’s most famous behavioural scientist. Frame something as a loss, you turn people off. Frame it as a gain, you interest them strangely. The removal of the triple lock, for instance, was presented as an attack on pensions. Well, why not sell it to the young as what it is, a means of cutting the disproportionate flow of wealth towards crumblies like me, and a consequent gain for their generation? Why not sell the double lock to the old as what it is, a guaranteed annual increase in the pension so that it will always keep abreast of the cost of living?
Fifth, while we’re on the subject of framing, student loans are a toxic subject; no-one wants to drag a load of debt through their lives. But student loans are not loans! They look much more like taxes: they are paid out of payroll, they are sensitive to a loss of a job or reduction of income and no-one chases you for them. There is no assumption within the system that a graduate will pay back everything. No-one minds leaving university with future income tax hanging over their head. Make this explicit, rebrand, call the payments a graduate tax, and tweak the system to remove any unfairness that remains.
Sixth, the dementia tax was a silly policy to put in the manifesto – too definite and creating obvious losers, even though it was at least an attempt at a solution to the extremely tricky problem at hand. Why not retreat to an offer of consultations on the future funding of the NHS and social care, to try to produce just the kind of all-party discussion I advocated above? Put the Dilnot Review back somewhere on the table? Specifically talk about the requirement for a solution that respected intergenerational justice, and demonstrate that general taxation was no solution to the upcoming problems. Make the opposition accept the financial realities by including them in the debate.
Finally, as Francis Maude argued recently on this site, continue to make the case for slimmer government with reduced borrowing. How does this help? By pointing out this is yet another means to rebalance the economy away from older generations, who will benefit disproportionately from extra spending, and towards the younger, who will have to pick up the tab. Corbyn’s manifesto will leave young people with a huge bill at the end of the day, which they will have to meet, either by actual payments, or via increased inflation.
There is quite a bit in current Tory thinking for young people already. Why not invest some effort in communicating it explicitly, as a first step toward winning their votes?