Ryan Shorthouse is the Founder and Chief Executive of Bright Blue
I’m stepping down as Chief Executive of Bright Blue. I do so happy – for the incredible opportunity over the past eight years or so to work with so many talented people, usually much smarter than me – and grateful – for all the people who have supported the organisation, including Conservative members and parliamentarians.
But you have to know when you’ve done your bit. When it’s time to let someone else have a go. All organisations need fresh leadership and vision from time to time if they are to continue to flourish. And I have come to recognise my real strength and passion: building businesses. I will, however, step up to chair the think tank and support, behind the scenes, the new Chief Executive, which post we are recruiting for now.
See the beating heart of a conservative: a deep desire to build and maintain what is good, and to pass that on so it can be enjoyed by the next generation. We unashamedly support the best institutions: strong families, excellent educational establishments, a house of your own, business ownership. Conservatism is at its best when its main mission is to ensure more of the public, especially from less advantaged backgrounds, can access and benefit from them.
A balanced assessment of the last twelve years is that Conservative Governments have made significant progress on employment, educational and environmental policy, of which the latter two in particular will support future generations. I think of the increase in the wage floor and the extension of flexible working rights. More free and academy schools, the wider use of phonics in primaries, and the expansion of university places. A new payments system for farmers that better rewards them for the ecosystem services they deliver, supporting renewables to drive green jobs and energy, and the adoption of a new legal target to reduce our carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
But for my generation – millennials – who came of age and entered the labour market under Tory rule, if they do not have middle-class parents to support them, then I am afraid that my conclusion is they have largely been failed. I am losing faith that our current politics can deliver for them. They have faced more than a decade of stagnant wages and now their real incomes are falling. The cost of owning or renting a home is as high as ever. As is raising a family – because of crippling childcare costs, but also the impact of the wages of women.
The result is a marked decline in overall homeownership and the birth rate. This should send shivers down the spine of any conservative. It is an economic and moral failure, but also a political one. If young folk have no hope of acquiring what conservatives say gives them the good life, they will be less likely to develop a desire to conserve what they have built, and thus will not be stirred by conservatism. Frankly, fewer homeowners and fewer parents means fewer Conservative voters.
Now, I don’t have all the answers to rectify this intergenerational injustice. I haven’t always been balanced enough. For example, whilst proposing policies to widen access to higher education, I’ve neglected to think deeply about how to improve the quality of alternative post-18 education provision. In my belief that we should open up opportunities for overseas talent to come to the UK, I haven’t paid enough attention to proposing practical policies that would reduce the amount of unskilled and illegal immigration in the country.
But here are some final thoughts on the bold policy priorities which I think should now be taken to make some steps to ensure this becomes a better country for millennials.
First, the state needs to act more like an affluent babyboomer for young adults. Based on their success in widening access to higher education, we should enable them to draw on government-backed, income-contingent loans to pay for a deposit for a house or childcare fees, smoothing these prohibitive costs over a more manageable period. Adapting the successful furlough scheme, so working-aged people can receive income protection during job or income loss based on previous employer and employee auto-enrolment contributions, would create a contributory-based social security system in which people would have more of a temporary financial buffer to take risks and shift jobs in a way that those only with an upper-middle class cushion currently can.
Second, the weight of taxation needs to be shifted away from work and on to wealth. A centre-right government should feel compelled to reduce taxes on income associated with work and effort and onto income associated with privilege and luck. Thanks to young people facing student loan repayments and National Insurance on their incomes, unlike those of pension age, the young face higher effective tax rates. We need to think about applying National Insurance on income that is derived from assets – such as pensions, rent and dividends – and increasing Capital Gains and Inheritance Taxes, to enable tax rates to be significantly softened for those of working age.
Third, we need to give more time and resource to those bringing up children. The majority of new parents work for small businesses, relying on statutory rates of maternity or paternity pay: after the first six weeks for a woman, that’s a measly £157 per week. Such parents need a much better package from the state to look after a baby in the first year of its life. Parents should be able to transfer any unused parental leave to working grandparents. And they should be entitled to more paid parental leave and sick days when their children are young.
Robust but respectful debate is a sign of strength in any family, especially in this new political era we are entering. This includes the conservative family, which Bright Blue will always be part of. As we enter a new chapter, we want to contribute to a renaissance of conservatism among the young.