Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
It’s time to look to the future. Brexit isn’t quite over yet, but the Prime Minister has landed a great deal, and he has got off to a fantastic start, with a blistering series of popular announcements on the police, schools and hospitals. We’ve soared in the polls, while Corbyn deflates like a sad balloon
But let’s not stop now. Let’s work to turn our present strength into an enduring majority. In particular, let’s think about how we do better among younger voters.
In elections between 1950 and 2010, the Conservatives were on average eight per cent behind Labour among younger voters, but nine per cent ahead among older voters. But in the last election, we are were 35 points behind among the young (18 to 24-year-olds) and 36 points ahead among over-65s.
For me, the most concerning thing wasn’t being behind among the very young, but being behind among everyone under age 47. That meant we were behind among people with jobs, kids, bills… responsibilities – all things which tended to make people Conservative during previous years.
Doing better among younger voters isn’t about gimmicks: it’s about having answers to the big issues facing young people and young families.
Some of this is about action on issues younger voters care about. For example, we have a great record on the environment. We have the lowest emissions since 1888, and are one of the first countries in the world to set deadlines to end coal use, to go to all electric cars and net zero emissions.
But a lot of it is about doing things that will benefit young people directly.
Let’s start with housing. Declining homeownership explains a big chunk of the age gap in voting that has opened up. Looking at middle income people aged 25-34, the home ownership rate fell from two thirds in 1996, to just a quarter by 2016.
I’ve written elsewhere about the long term action we need on both supply and demand to drive up home ownership: building upwards and regenerating brownfield sites in our cities; rebalancing the economy to spread growth beyond the south east; getting away from the kind of piecemeal, tacked-on development in our towns and villages which maximises opposition to new housing; and making sure developers pay for the cost of the new infrastructure that’s needed with new housing.
But it’s also about building the tax reforms we’ve made since 2015. Those rebalancing tax reforms have led to the first sustained period for some time in which we have seen growth in home ownership, not just growth in the private rented sector.
But a plan to fix the housing problem over the coming decades isn’t enough. As well as a long-term solution, we need to provide immediate help. Many young people feel they’re on a cruel treadmill, unable to save because they are paying high rents. There are many who could afford a repayment mortgage (in fact it would be cheaper than renting), but they can’t save up for a deposit. So let’s create deposit loans: like Help to Buy, the government would take a repayable stake. But unlike Help to Buy, the purchaser would not have to provide a deposit up front.
There are a further group of people who might be able to save up a deposit over time, if only their existing rental costs were lower. They are the sorts of people who would have been helped by council housing in earlier generations – but (perversely) wouldn’t get it today, precisely because they’re working, so don’t qualify.
We could fund the creation of a huge number of cheap rented homes for young working people by transferring the remaining local authority housing stock into charitable housing associations, unlocking huge value.
Another part of our offer to younger people has to be about the cost of education. We have to be bold, not tinker.
Let’s cut the cost of going to university in half. And let’s pay for it by driving down the number of low value, mickey mouse courses which aren’t good value, either for students or the taxpayer. At present, one in ten graduates isn’t earning enough to pay back a single penny of their loan even ten years after graduation. And thanks to the LEO dataset, we now have a good idea of which courses they are, at which universities.
We need to build up technical education and apprenticeships. In Germany 20 per cent of the workforce has a higher technical qualification, but in Britain it’s just four per cent, while we rely heavily on importing electricians, plumbers, technicians and engineers from the rest of the world.
Tony Blair set a target for 50 per cent young people to go to university, but no such target for technical education.
We spend six times more per person on university students than technical students. We should become the champions for the 50 per cent who choose not to go to university too. We are introducing the new T levels, have brought in the Apprenticeship Levy, and are driving up number of Higher Apprenticeships. But there is much more to do.
But if we are serious about winning over younger voters we also need to talk about the pressures of life with a young family. Childcare costs are a huge worry for many.
Successive governments have built up a rather a confusing array of policies: the 15 and 30 free hours offers, Tax Free Childcare, the Childcare Element of Universal Credit, not to mention other benefits for children like Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. Each has complex rules on eligibility and requires a certain amount of bureaucracy to claim.
We could be incremental, and refine and build on existing policies. For example, one frustration with using the 30 free hours for working families is that it only covers 38 weeks a year, following school terms. So how much you pay yo-yos up and down wildly each month. We could make it year-round, so it is more generous and predictable.
Or we could think more radically. As Conservatives we think people are best placed to make their own decisions. For example, when two police women were prosecuted for looking after each others’ children in 2009, conservatives saw it was an example of socialist meddling gone mad.
One way to simplify this alphabet soup of complex policies would be to bring back the tax allowances for children which Labour abolished in the 1970s. Tax allowances for children existed between 1909 and 1977, and gave a higher personal allowance for people with children, on the conservative principle that you should be able to provide for your own family before you pay tax. Rather than taking money off people, and then getting them to jump through hoops to claim it back, we could go back to just leaving it with people in the first place.
There are lots of other things we could do. But as we move into the post-Brexit era, it’s time to look to the future.
Let’s make sure that in our next manifesto, we think big for younger people.