Nadhim Zahawi is MP for Stratford On Avon.
According to YouGov polling, at the last election the Conservative Party received just 19 per cent of the vote of 18-19 year olds, 22 per cent of 20-23 year olds and 23 per centf 24-29 year olds. Although it is likely that the narrative of Jeremy Corbyn soaring upon millions of millennial votes is overplayed, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there was a concerning lack of support for our party from younger voters.
There have been two standard responses used to explain this, but both are clearly flawed. The first is the belief that young people are just more left -wing, and therefore they’re lost to the Conservatives. This then leads to a strategy of ignoring the concerns of young people about housing and employment, and focusing on older voters who we think are naturally more likely to vote for us. Even worse, it leads to avoiding policies that are good for the country but which may be a hard sell to these older voters.
There is truth in the idea that young people are instinctively attracted to values of fairness and opportunity. But as a constituency MP who has spent a lot of time visiting schools, speaking to politics societies, and engaging in sixth form debates and mock elections, I can say with confidence that many young people are receptive to Conservative arguments of fairness and opportunity too. We just need to make sure those arguments are clearly made, and that the policies are there to back up these messages. We know more young people can be convinced by Conservatives because, just seven years ago, we received 30 per cent of the 18-24-year-old vote, 50 per cent higher than it is now.
The other false belief is that young people and students can only be won over by expensive gimmicks. This was shown to be Labour’s strategy at the last election with their policy to scrap tuition fees and ‘deal with’ the problem of existing student debts without any form of plan for how to cover the cost of any of this. Their apparent success led to calls that the Conservatives must pledge to scrap tuition fees too. Apparently, this is the only way of making the system ‘fair’.
We need to be prepared to say that this argument, that removing tuition fees is the way to ensure fairness, is at best a misrepresentation. We know this because, since tuition fees have come in, applications from the most disadvantaged students have increased, while in Scotland (where tuition fees were not introduced) numbers have fallen. We know this because, if a university education does not provide you with a great boost to your future earning potential, then you do not have to anything back. And we know this because it cannot be fair to increase taxes on those who do not go to university to fund those that do.
What we need to do is to find good ways to help young people, in an authentic Conservative way. We need to show them why Conservative values are the way to create a society in which opportunity and fairness are maximised. One way will be to finally deal with the long-standing housing issues in this country, and thereby reduce the pressure of rents on young people, and provide a much greater supply of affordable alternative housing options. Another is to keep pushing great employers to provide routes to fantastic careers through apprenticeships.
But why not do something typically Conservative to help young people, who are struggling more than their immediately preceding generations? Why not do something that will help young people get on in life and be rewarded for the work they put in? Why not cut their taxes? One the great successes of this period of Conservative leadership of our country has been the commitment to let workers keep more of their wage with the increase of the personal allowance to £11,500. However, why not now start targeting tax cuts at the young?
Based on the proportion of under 30 tax payers, and the Treasury’s estimates of the cost of cutting the basic rate of income tax, you can estimate that a cut to a 15 per cent basic rate for under 30s would cost about £1.4 billion in 2018/19, and if you were to cut it to 10 per cent the cost would be roughly £2.8 billion. It’s a lot of money, but it’s nothing compared to the tens of billions associated with removing tuition fees. And it would provide a real boost to the young people of the UK, and show what Conservative government can deliver. Even better it would help everyone, not just the 50 per cent who go to university.
We already change how we levy certain taxes based on a taxpayers age. Over 65s don’t pay national insurance, and employers of apprentices under the age of 25 do not either. In an era when it is ever harder for young people to raise deposits and buy a house, or even just to pay rent as they struggle to climb the career ladder, it makes sense to direct more help to them than older age groups who already have a house, may have paid off their mortgage and have already experienced years of security.
The Conservatives should be the party of security. Physical security, economic security and financial security too. We need to do more to help young people share in that security. Why not cut their taxes?