Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
We need to be tough on Corbynism, and tough on the causes of Corbynism. After crushing Labour last year, it might be tempting to rest on our laurels. But we need to act now to keep the extreme left locked out of Number 10 in the long term. This piece is about two ways we can do that.
First, doing better among young people. Second, making sure we remain trusted as a compassionate party.
Both are about uniting the country post Brexit. Let’s start with younger people.
In the last election, Boris Johnson raised our share of the vote across the board.
But we made bigger gains among older people than young. Despite the improvement compared to 2017, last year we still got just 19 per cent of the vote among 18 to 24 year olds, while Labour got 62 per cent. Contrast that with 1979 and 1983 when got 42 per cent of the vote among 18-24 year olds. That was nearly the same share we got among the over 55s those years (47 per cent).
It is true that younger people are always more left-wing. But the gap in voting behaviour between young and old became way bigger in 2017 than it had been before, and that massive gap was still there in 2019.
While today’s younger voters are likely to become more conservative as they get older, we are starting from a much lower base. So if we don’t fix those cracks in the foundations, we risk our 2019 triumph crumbling away over time.
There are multiple factors causing young people to shift left, including: the larger proportion of younger voters who are not white (20 per cent among under 34s, compared to five per cent of those over 60); the liberalising effects of the expansion of Higher Education (three per cent going to uni during the 1950s, and 50 per cent now); and housing costs going up (from 10 per cent of renters’ income during the 1970s to a third now, while twice as many are renting). Other factors include tuition fees; the Financial Crash; Brexit, and the rise of social liberalism.
What’s clear is that we need to make some big changes to do better among younger voters. That means for starters, that the forthcoming spending review has to have something to offer them. Our new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is one of the smartest people I have met. But if we don’t want debt to grow relative to the economy, he inherits no room to go on a spending spree.
So where can he find the money to help young people?
One asset is the remaining stock of local authority housing. Transferring it to not-for-profit housing associations would allow them to borrow against rents, unlocking £27 billion for housing. That would let us build a huge amount of housing for younger working people who don’t get council housing. It could include cheap rented accommodation to build up a deposit, and homes for discounted sale.
Another place to look is our universities. We now know that there’s a large group of young people for whom going won’t be worth it financially, either for them or the taxpayer.
That’s true for between a fifth and a quarter of those who currently go. Frankly, many are being mis-sold a degree.
For example, the average creative arts graduate isn’t earning enough even ten years after leaving university to pay back any of their loan. We are doing young people no favours by loading them up with debts in return for such degrees.
They also cost the taxpayer a large amount in written-off loans. Clamping down on low value courses could save enough money to either cut the cost of going to university in half, or free up money to invest in top flight technical education and higher apprenticeships. That would also help “Level up” places where more young people go down technical routes.
The other part of combatting the causes of Corbynism is making sure we tackle the big social challenges.
I’ve spent a long time arguing for a focus on people who are not at the bottom, but are “just about managing”. But reasonable, middle of the road people will only keep voting for us if they feel we have a plan to deal with people who are, well, “not managing at all”: people in poverty.
People want to know we are doing the right thing. And people who are just about managing are also the most directly exposed to social breakdown. That means going further to tackle things like rough sleeping. It has gone up since 2010. And that is only partly because we have funded more outreach services and so identified more rough sleepers.
It is true that there are a larger number of EU nationals sleeping rough. And it was deeply unhelpful that EU law banned efforts to return rough sleepers to their home countries. When I did outreach work with street homeless, I met people who wanted to get home after things in London had not worked out.
But there are also large numbers of British people sleeping rough – and shamefully, six per cent of them are formerly of our own armed forces.
In my time working with rough sleepers, I met many who couldn’t face going into a shelter because they’d had a bad experience in one. That’s why the pilots of “Housing First” are important. In Housing First, people are housed first and then have their problems worked on. The Rough Sleeping Initiative also seems to be working in areas where it is operating. But we now need to put rocket boosters under both these schemes.
Take another challenge: food banks. They exist in pretty much every country in Europe, even the richest. France has “Restos du Couer” while Germany has “Tafel” (Food Tables).
How can we drive down the number of people in Britain who need to use them? The main network of food banks, the Trussell Trust, suggests reducing delays at the start of Universal Credit claims so people don’t struggle while waiting for their benefits.
Currently claimants can opt to get an advance loan to reduce the wait for money. We could make this the default, though such loans can still lead to problems paying back the money later. Alternatively, we could make UC payments work more like the old system: with an upfront payment, paid every two weeks, and the housing benefit element direct to landlords as standard.
There would be a cost to upfront payments: as much as £1-2 billion nationally. So we should experiment by trying it in some areas, and seeing what difference it makes to foodbank use and other social problems. If it works, we should do it nationally.
More broadly, the new government should set out a clear new framework for tackling poverty: an approach that tackles the underlying causes, with clear goals to drive down rough sleeping, drive up school standards, drive down worklessness and so on.
Our Prime Minister studied the classics, and will recall how triumphant Roman generals would have an Auriga on hand to remind them that “you too are mortal”, and generally keep them down to earth. He has produced a historic triumph in the general election. Now is the time, when he is strong, to secure the long term future of the party. The time to put his compassionate instincts into action, and build a united country.