Everyone knows the Conservatives have a youth problem. Part of the problem is the lack of engagement with millennial voters, but dissatisfaction with Conservatism goes well beyond that. Capitalism simply does not work for them as well as it did for their parents. Winning back millennial voters means addressing their concerns and worries, a prominent issue being higher education.
In the wake of the election result and a stream of negative polling regarding young people’s views of Conservatism, the party has been scrambling for ideas. Philip Hammond asked at a 1922 Committee meeting for MPs’ thoughts on how to tackle intergenerational inequality. It looks likely that the Conservative Party Conference or the Autumn Budget will feature the Government’s first practical attempt to put forward policies to tackle this problem.
A major topic in this debate is tuition fees. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to scrap tuition fees and cancel student debt has been seen as a major cause of the surge in Labour’s youth vote. Millennials’ dissatisfaction with the modern economy has made them open to Corbyn’s populist socialism. This is not surprising given how, according to recent research, 53% of millennials think their generation will be worse off than their parents. This goes up to 57% for millennials with degrees, but goes down to 44% for non-graduates.
Damian Green, the de facto Deputy Prime Minister, made the first significant Conservative intervention in this debate after the election. The Government is now considering options such as cutting interest rates on student loans which currently stand at over 6%. The problem with this policy is that it disproportionately benefits well paid graduates who are above the threshold to repay student loans. Raising the threshold would be a more productive approach towards helping people with student debt. But the Conservatives should be wary of entering an impossible bidding war with Corbyn on the question of tuition fees.
It is also unfortunate that mainstream politicians have focused on just one aspect of higher education. Corbyn and his supporters (wrongly) claim that tuition fees have hindered the entry of working-class students into Oxbridge and behave as if there are no alternatives despite consistently high numbers of young people going to university. But there is no reason why non-graduates should foot the tax bill for scrapping or reducing tuition fees. Young people who do not attend university also need support in gaining the necessary skills to get good jobs.
This bias towards helping graduates can be traced back to the Major Government’s decision to convert polytechnics into universities and the Blair Government’s target of getting 50% of people into university. By focusing on universities and the “knowledge economy”, the state has failed to nurture technical and vocational paths to prosperity. Snobbery towards non-graduate education has made many young people study university courses which are not value for money and fail to help them find success in the workplace.
David Cameron and Theresa May have made some changes to this trend. The Government intends to create three million new apprenticeships by 2020 and introduce new T-Levels as respectable and desirable qualifications to help raise standards in technical education. There have been policy misfires as well, such as the University Technical Colleges which have failed to meet expectations. But this should not deter policymakers from what needs to become an ongoing process of reform.
If capitalism is going to work for everyone then it is essential that young people are given the training and skills best suited to their talents and interests. This means ending the obsession with tuition fees and opening new opportunities for people as non-graduates. Unleashing a revolution in higher education which helps young people adapt to a changing workplace and get the jobs of the future is the best way of ensuring millennials do better than the generations that came before them.
The Conservative party has a youth problem. This isn’t news. Party strategists have long ignored young voters as they are unlikely to actually turn up on polling day, unlike the elderly. But the young have finally made their voice heard.
Jeremy Corbyn reached out to the young and inspired them. They are still the least likely age group to vote, but there was a healthy increase on their turnout in 2015 with 57% of 18 to 19 year olds and 59% of 20 to 24 year olds turning out to vote last week. Only 19% and 22% of these age groups voted for the Conservatives. The Conservatives have become a party for the asset-rich elderly with dwindling support from the young.
The young are among those left behind by the current economy. Many young people struggle to pay off their student debts, find a job, get onto the property ladder, start a family. This means it takes longer for the young to settle into adult life. Labour’s manifesto made unrealistic promises to the young like scrapping tuition fees, but the Conservatives’ manifesto did not even try to win them over.
Healing the divide between the generations has become a pressing necessity for Conservatives. As the party which believes in a “property-owning democracy”, the Conservatives are well placed to offer realistic and popular solutions. Noel Skelton MP first coined this term in 1923 as part of his vision for a “Constructive Conservatism” which could elevate the economic wellbeing of the people. Conservatives can carry on Skelton’s ideas by tapping into young people’s aspirations and helping them become homeowners and savers. If the Conservatives fail to extend property-ownership to the young, then they will not have a future as a majority party.
Not only does the Conservative party need to produce popular policies for the young, it also has to communicate with them more effectively. In an age when Twitter helped Donald Trump win the Presidency, the power of digital media can no longer be dismissed as trivial. Even with the power of the right-wing paper press, the Conservatives failed to win a majority, while Labour nimbly used social media platforms like Snapchat and Facebook to engage with young voters. In Scotland, Ruth Davidson proved that Conservatives can be social media savvy and electorally popular. Unlocking the potential of digital media is now essential in our democracy and crucial for attracting young voters to the party.
As well as energising young supporters online, the Conservatives need to mobilise them on the ground. With the help of Momentum, Labour was able to send armies of young grassroots activists to key seats. The Conservatives’ recent experiences with young activists has been more bleak. Ever since a major bullying scandal which was exposed by the tragic suicide of Elliott Johnson in 2015, the party has ceased to have a functioning national youth wing. Lessons have to be learnt from what went wrong with Conservative Future so the party can create a safe environment in which young activists can make new friendships and support their ideals.
Even if young voters do not turn out in higher numbers for the next election, the Conservative party’s future depends on winning over the young. Conservatism cannot afford to lose an entire generation to socialism. In a democracy, Conservatism also has a duty to speak for all of the people of the country. That means healing the intergenerational divide in Britain and galvanising a new generation of young Conservatives.