James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
How should the Conservative Party appeal to young voters? This is one of the central questions the Party and the Treasury are considering for the Budget. We’re told that Philip Hammond is thinking about bold policy decisions on housing and student debt.
Appealing to the young has become the new Big Thing for the Party since the summer’s election debacle. A year ago, relatively briefly, it was all about those Just About Managing. A focus on the lower middle class and the more affluent working class should remain their focus. But the JAMs are no longer politically fashionable so, once again, it’s on to the next thing.
Just seven years ago, at the 2010 election, the Conservatives were level pegging with Labour amongst 18-24 year olds – with around 30 per cent of the vote. But in the 2017 election, Labour picked up 62 per cent of their votes, while the Conservatives picked up just 27 per cent. While voter turnout amongst young people is low – at around 60 per cent, compared to around 80 per cent for over 60s – the Party are right to think about how to appeal to them.
How best should they do this? Because the shift in attention to young people feels like a panic move, it doesn’t look from the outside that they’re thinking about the problem in the right way. If we assume that the various stories in the media about the Treasury’s plans are accurate, it looks like they’re thinking about them as a homogenous block of affluent, very well-educated, metropolitan voters.
Thinking of young people through this prism, the Conservatives are therefore apparently thinking about cutting stamp duty for house buyers, extending Right to Buy and reducing student debt (somehow). These are fair enough in themselves, but they’re essentially policies for wealthy graduates. They’re an important part of the 18-24 group – or the under-30s, if you want to consider young people more broadly – but they’re not the majority.
If the Party is serious about mass appeal to the young, it needs to broaden its focus to include the huge numbers of young people who didn’t or won’t go to university, who won’t buy a smart house anytime soon and who don’t subscribe to metropolitan values. While many of these voters will be from poorer backgrounds, many will also come from the provincial lower middle class.
The Conservatives are right to think about meaningful policy offers that will improve their lives. While unemployment is generally low, many young people fear that they’re miles off building a career. The Party should look at how to boost the long-term employability of young people, while increasing their prospects of finding a good job locally.
Practically, this could mean two things. First, technical education. While the Chancellor and PM clearly support improving this, it remains the case that post-16 technical education is given much less resource than the school or Higher Education system. Students should have an entitlement that allows them to choose the best courses in either HE or Further Education, and gives good technical education the funding it needs. Second, industrial policy. For example, an infrastructure program that is deliberately tied to advanced apprenticeships (as opposed to the very low level courses that form the bulk of today’s “apprenticeships”) would give real opportunity.
People’s hopes for a career are matched by their hopes to live in a decent house. Reducing stamp duty will help some but cutting stamp duty will not help fundamentally if the number of houses remains the same. The Party has no option but to massively increase the amount of houses built. Others on this site, like Nick Faith, have suggested how they might go about this.
The Conservatives should also look at how to raise the disposable income of younger voters by reducing their taxes – or, more realistically, by reducing taxes in such a way that they’ll be disproportionately felt by younger voters. We have heard that the Treasury is thinking about raising the cost of running a diesel car, although the details are very sketchy. That would be a mistake and the Party should be thinking about reducing taxes broadly on driving – something that bites hard into the disposable income of younger people outside London.
As this column has discussed on many occasions, voters don’t make up their minds purely on the basis of what’s in it for them. Most voters are at least in part “values voters”. While it would be an exaggeration to say that every young person is a remain-voting liberal, there’s no getting away from the fact that the young voted solidly for remain and that they are way less interested in issues like border control.
The Conservatives are therefore in a difficult place at the moment with younger voters: pushing through Brexit and assuring the bulk of the electorate (who are more likely to vote) that they’re going to be taking control of our borders. The Party can reassure younger people that we aren’t building “Little England” – not least through an aggressively global trade policy – but this is ultimately going to be a job of mitigating their concern.
In looking for more cultural policies, the Party should take a particular look at healthcare. Perhaps counter-intuitively, given they don’t rely on the NHS to anything like the same extent as the old, this is younger voters’ stated top policy concern. The Party’s focus groups will explain why, but it’s likely to reflect their concerns about what sort of a country we’re creating.
There’s an attractive and credible path the Conservatives could take in their appeal to the young. A broad offer that amplifies the concerns of less affluent young people could neatly fit into a strategy for the Just About Managing and the working class in provincial England particularly. Unfortunately, at the moment it looks like they’re creating policies almost entirely for London graduates.