James Kirkup is Director of the Social Market Foundation.
I hope you’ll forgive some unsolicited advice from a former colleague on your manifesto, and a non-Conservative colleague at that.
But the fact that the Social Market Foundation and I are non-partisan and centrist is, I hope, a reason for you (and anyone else who wants to be Prime Minister) to listen to us. Because most people aren’t especially tribal or partisan. They’re not interested in culture wars or talking points and they’re not on Twitter. They just want a government that makes things work a bit better, and which recognises the things that matter to them over the course of their lives.
It’s a cliché to say that we live in uncertain times – technology, ageing, China, Brexit – but that doesn’t mean the feelings that uncertainty breed are any less important. When we worry what the future holds, we can’t expect government to tell us what will happen next, but it can help us prepare for social and economic change. Here are my suggestions for how the next government can provide people with more security, opportunity and fairness from their first years to their last.
Start with education. Everyone wants to talk about schools and universities, but it’s technical and vocational education that needs more attention. You should fund Further Education – and its teachers – properly, and not just because the Leave-voting places you want to win are more likely to send the kids to the local college than away to uni. The productivity Britain needs to deliver long-term growth depends on a better-skilled workforce; though this gets a fraction of the political attention devoted to Brexit, addressing our productivity problems matters more than our relationship with the EU.
For more on FE and skills, don’t bother dreaming up new policies. Just implement the ones in the Augar Review, especially the one about restoring full funding for level 2 and 3 qualifications for people of all ages. That will allow adults – of all ages – the chance to start getting the skills they’ll need for a long and changing career in an age of AI and automation. To meet their future needs for skills and training, adopt Ruth Davidson’s plans for lifelong learning accounts, into which workers, employers and the state can all contribute.
More and better apprenticeships. More HNDs. More degree-apprenticeships. Promise to change our culture too. Send a clear message from the very top: the vocational and technical route matters every bit as much to Britain as PPE at Balliol.
When it comes to universities, don’t scrap tuition fees: that would be a huge handout to the middle classes who dominate higher education. But do bring back maintenance grants.
Don’t attack independent schools: if parents want to go private, that’s their choice. But do make independents work much, much harder to keep their privileged tax status, making them partner with state schools to offer pupils there help getting the soft skills and social capital that remain the key to higher-paid careers.
Social mobility should be at the heart of your programme, which means accepting that mobility is about much more than exam results so when young people leave education and seek jobs, CV-blind applications should be the norm. Starting with the public sector, recruiters should set tests for applicants that demonstrate their ability, not their parents’ ability to get them into good schools. (The best private sector recruiters are already doing this: ask KPMG or Clifford Chance for tips.)
When people are in work, their Government should get them a better deal. Corporate governance laws should revised (start with Section 172 of the Companies Act 2008) to enhance the duties on directors to take account of the interests of workers, sharing profits with employees in the form of higher wages and – especially – better training. If you really want to cut business tax, make the cuts conditional on improving pay and training provision. Put the full power of Government behind employee-ownership schemes. Politics shouldn’t be a battle between labour and capital: the labourers should also be capitalists, with a meaningful stake in their employer.
Commit to end in-work poverty. That means funding Universal Credit properly, allowing claimants to keep more of their benefits as they earn. Ending the benefits freeze is a start, but you should focus some cash on making sure the two-child limit doesn’t push children into poverty. This should take priority over tax cuts.
End the national fixation on owner-occupation in housing. The real housing crisis is in the private rented sector, where tenants need more rights. Social housing should be an even higher priority. Just build more of it, funding construction directly from central government borrowing if needs be. Reducing the social harms caused by poor housing at the bottom of the income scale will pay off.
Tony Blair said “education-education-education”. Your cry should be “childcare-childcare-childcare”. UK childcare provision is woeful. and that holds back too many women’s careers. That’s not just unfair and electorally unwise, it’s an economic error. With an ageing population and (sadly) fewer EU workers, the UK is going to need more workers. Follow the example of Quebec, where a state scheme offering full-time childcare for barely £10 a week has more than paid for itself in higher employment, wages and taxes.
As people enter their later years, help them blend retirement and work. “Midlife MOT” reviews for 40-somethings to plan their financial and personal needs are being deployed by smart employers: Government should back them for all.
When it comes to retirement incomes, I would suggest you abandon the triple lock on pension uprating, which will next year push up the state pension by almost four per cent. That policy is a relic of the days when pensioners were poorer than the rest. That’s no longer the case, so prioritising big state pension increases in a welfare budget that could be better spent elsewhere makes little sense.
But I know there’s no realistic prospect of you abandoning the triple lock before an election. Instead, you should commit to a new non-partisan Pensions Commission that will review the future of retirement policy. Its remit should include the triple lock, but also increases in auto-enrolled pension contributions and put particular focus on women’s pensions. Longer working lives could widen existing gaps between male and female pension accumulation: women who take time out of work to care for children or older relatives should get more help from the state in building a decent pension.
A Commission will take some time, of course, so in the meantime you should make some smaller changes to pensioner benefits, starting with winter fuel allowance. Some of the people who get it don’t need it. With a few small reforms, you can make it possible – and easy – for them to donate the money to a new “good causes” fund run at arms-length from the state.
And when voters reach their final years, the state should provide them with free personal care. Clever-sounding social insurance schemes won’t raise the additional £7 billion a year needed, and funding the change from general taxation just wouldn’t be fair: why should a 20-something on the minimum wage pay taxes to fund care for wealthy pensioners? Bite the bullet and fund care from a one-off levy on property assets held by people over 65.
Wealth taxes. Welfare. Stakeholder capitalism. A more active state providing security, opportunity and fairness for all. Is the programme I’ve set out here un-Conservative? As a non-Tory, maybe it’s not for me to say. But is conservatism about a small-state libertarian free-for-all where the rich stay rich and the rest have only a broken ladder to climb and no safety net when they fall? Or is it about Edmund Burke’s idea of society where every family, group and subdivision we belong to is a “link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”?
And perhaps more importantly, what do you think the voters you’ll need to win this election will want from their next government?