Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.
James Kanagasooriam’s interesting recent ConservativeHome article summarised polling and analysis by Onward which should alarm all Conservatives. His thesis is powerful: we have lost young people’s support, and even that of those in mid-life, to an extraordinary extent.
His conclusion however – that we should poll young people and, based on the findings, move policy towards their wishes – is less convincing. Clearly engaging with youth and, indeed, those in their twenties and thirties, is crucial. But simply analysing what young people want and offering as much of it as we can afford would lead, I believe, nowhere, for three reasons:
1. We have allowed the Left to dominate schools and universities to the point where traditional Conservative voices on everything, from free market economics to the dangers of transgender therapy for children, are being excluded. As a tweet quoting Roger Scruton recently put it: “Once identified as right-wing you are beyond the pale of argument; your views are irrelevant, your character discredited, your presence in the world a mistake. You are not an opponent to be argued with, but a disease to be shunned. This has been my experience”
Ironically, just days later, an unscrupulous New Statesman journalist stitched him up in an interview, which resulted in the government sacking him from his (unpaid) post chairing an advisory group on housing design. His response is worth reading .
The gay former chairman of Kent University Conservative Association reflected after the 2017 general election that it was harder to come out as a Conservative than as a gay man. Some Conservative students complain of biased marking in subjects like history, economics and politics by Marxist professors. A Canterbury A level student activist tells me that he does not dare let staff at his (academically strong) school know he is a Conservative. Across the country ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no-platforming’ of those with conservative views by student unions are widely reported. Last year, Nigel Biggar, an Oxford academic was vilified by a string of his colleagues for teaching that the British Empire had benefits as well as drawbacks, while Cambridge has recently banned the distinguished polymath, Jordan Petersen, from a visiting lectureship because he was once photographed with a student wearing an offensive tee-shirt.
Rather than swallowing the world-view of young people today, we need to challenge their ideas. More of us need to follow Jacob Rees-Mogg’s programme of speaking regularly in universities, and we need to introduce scrutiny of the syllabus and teaching materials in schools, using such levers as the new Office for Students and Ofsted. If those bodies prove supine, we could empower students to apply to a tribunal to have taxpayer funds cut off when their unions are promoting political safe spaces, no platforming or showing political bias in the allocation of funds.
2. Students are justifiably angry about a system of fees and loans which plunges them into levels of debt that the majority are likely never to fully repay. Yet, if we make comparisons with abroad, we see that the systemic problem is deeper than students – and the wider public – understand. In most countries, including other European countries, most students go to their local universities from home. In America, public sector tuition fees are usually lower than the UK and the private sector has built endowment funds to support the talented less-well-off. In Britain, almost uniquely, the vast majority of students go away to university, and rack up huge debts to cover both crippling accommodation costs and heavy tuition fees.
This is compounded by many universities packing their benches with people whose study is unlikely to benefit their careers. In November, the Education Select Committee published a report denouncing many universities as poor value and inflexible. While stressing the quality of our best institutions, the report highlighted that fact that almost half of recent graduates work in non-graduate roles. Indeed, more widely far too many people are studying degrees in subjects for which they are clearly not qualified. What point is there in reading engineering, if you cannot pass a Maths A Level, for example?
Too many of our weaker universities are treating students as cash cows, who rack up debt without improving their prospects. This is producing an angry graduate underclass with shattered expectations, who are consigned to jobs they see as beneath them – and with no prospect of paying off their debts. Not surprising that the Onward study shows that those who qualify as apprentices are much more likely to vote Conservative than recent graduates.
The rise in interest rates has provided the final twist in the garrotte. That can and must – be reversed, but doing so will be expensive for the taxpayer. More important is that any serious (and affordable) reform must start from recognising that the design of our university sector is unaffordable: the traditional British residential model, which delivers some of the world’s best universities at the top end, is unsuitable for delivering affordable, job-enhancing teaching and training for those with lower attainment levels.
The second quartile of each cohort, broadly the bottom half of today’s university sector, needs a shift towards local availability of HE (or FE), avoiding crippling accommodation costs, as its counterpart in most of Europe does. Equally, we need to move towards a much higher proportion of vocational degrees, as in the USA and the Far East – and as the recent Select Committee report recommends. Loading the cost of the current behemoth onto young people whose earnings will never justify it – and ending up with the state paying because they cannot repay – is the worst of all worlds.
3) The third issue is the most difficult of all. The report shows attitudes on three critical and related subjects whose handling needs to involve explanation as well as listening. First, a high proportion of young people see us as racist – or at least as anti-diversity – which helps to explain why members of ethnic minorities are disproportionately unlikely to support us (they are also disproportionately young).
Furthemore, a bare majority of the young are in favour of controlling immigration, but by a much smaller proportion than in older age groups. Anecdotally, this reflects a widespread view among students and young graduates that immigration controls are racist, on the one hand, set against angry opposition to immigration among the less-educated, on the other.
Finally, access to accommodation – unaffordable housing to buy and rent – is a major concern, among the young and older groups right up into their forties.
This last point is hardly surprising given the cost and shortage of housing, but Conservatives have failed to explain the linkage between unaffordable housing and spiralling population, largely driven by heavy net migration. Last week, the ONS reported, according to the Daily Telegraph, that they are revising their population estimate for 2026 up by a further 700,000 over and above the three million increase over the next seven years they had earlier projected. These numbers, combined with ‘domestic’ growth (heavily increased by replacing emigrating pensioners with incoming young people) could absorb most or all of our new housebuilding, leaving little for the disappointed aspirants.
It will require a major effort to explain that the mathematics of supply and demand in our housing market is at the heart of the need to tackle net migration, not, crucially, racism.
James Kanagasooriam is right. We must address young people, or the Conservative Party will wither. Post-Brexit, it should be our highest domestic priority, but – like Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms on welfare – our response must seek to make the weather, not just respond to it.