Neil O’Brien is MP for Market Harborough and is a board member of Onward.
Just days before last year’s general election, Jeremy Corbyn appeared on the front page of the NME. “I offer hope” ran the front page headline. With just seven days to go before polling day, he made a dramatic promise to write off student debts of those who had already left university: “I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after,” he said. “I will deal with it,” he promised.
It was a very expensive promise. The value of the outstanding student loan book is around £100 billion, and writing off olderdebts would come on top of the cost of Labour’s promise to “abolish” fees – a stonking £100 billion between now and 2025. Yet, just weeks after the election, the promise was dropped. In an extraordinary interview, Corbyn admitted that he’d had no idea how much his promise would cost: “We never said we would completely abolish it because we were unaware of the size at that time.”
The episode tells you everything you need to know about his junk politics. It doesn’t matter if there’s no way to pay for a policy. It doesn’t matter if an eye-catching giveaway will be dropped straight after the election. As long as it will go viral on social media, it gets announced.
As well as being dishonest, Corbyn’s politics are profoundly backward-looking. There are no new ideas at all in today’s Labour party. Their solution to any problem is just to return Britain to how it was in the late 1970s. Swathes of the economy will be renationalised. Taxes rates for small businesses and income taxes will go shooting up. Disruptive new technologies will be regulated out of existence. There’s no sense that there might have been good reasons why we’ve moved away from these tried-and-failed ideas over the last 40 years. Labour promise to takes us forward to a brighter version of yesterday.
The biggest losers from all this would be younger people. First, a highly regulated Corbynite economy would lock younger workers out of opportunity, in exactly the way it does in southern European countries like Italy and Spain, where youth unemployment is double or triple the rate in Britain.
Second, a Corbyn government would borrow on vast scale, running up unprecedented debts which would fall overwhelmingly on younger generations to repay.
If we don’t want this bleak future, the Conservative Party always needs to keep changing and refreshing itself. That’s one reason we are setting up the new think tank, Onward.
Part of our programme will be about how to help younger people prosper. That means coming up with answers on big questions like education and housing – and how we can restore the dream of home ownership.
But we also need to widen out the narrow media conversation about younger people. Polling shows younger people are indeed more socially liberal, but also more sceptical in many ways about the welfare handout culture which Labour remain wedded to. It is also good news for Britain, that being a “maker”, an entrepreneur or working in a start-up is much cooler than it was a couple of decades ago. How do we back the stronger enterprise culture among younger people?
Another big challenge we will be working on is how to build a confident, uniting culture and avoid fragmentation as Britain becomes more diverse. Whatever you think about immigration (and I support controlling it), we also need to ensure real integration for people who call Britain home – for example, by making sure that everyone has the opportunity to learn English and feel truly part of our society. Uniting Britain also means making sure people feel at home in the Conservative Party, no matter what their background is.
And we’ll be working on the big bread-and-butter economic issues: how to make a success of the next spending review; how to get productivity and wages up; how to make sure Britain makes the most of its strengths in industries of the future like AI, and how to ensure we get real private sector-led growth in the parts of the country that have lagged behind.
Ideas matter. In the 1980s and 1990s, people worried that high unemployment might be inevitable in the modern world. Today welfare reform and better conservative economic management have driven unemployment down to its lowest level for 40 years. Without think tanks, the government would not have developed major policies such as universal credit, welfare reform, police accountability or the free schools revolution.
Corbyn’s Labour won’t serve up anything but a re-heat of the 1970s. Meanwhile, even in lefty France, failed socialist policies are now being dumped by Emmanuel Macron in favour of free markets. For Conservatives, now is surely the time to develop our next round of big ideas.