David Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. A second edition of his book The Pinch is published by Atlantic Books.
The intensity of a political party’s conference reveals much about it and its politics. The leader’s speech in particular sets out the party’s argument in the clearest most vivid terms. This year, Rishi’s Sunak’s speech had some really meaty policy announcements.
But in a great speech, these come together as more than the sum of their parts. Last week’s Conservative Party conference slogan “Long-term decisions for a brighter future” tried to do this, but was too bland and capacious. It was reinforced by the argument that the Prime Minister is the change candidate, which tries to capture a genuine mood in the country.
But that leaves open the key question of what the purpose of the change is. These concerns have been picked by many Tory supporters and the commentators. So here is my suggestion for a better, meatier Conservative narrative.
It starts with the message in the conference slogan, which reflects a real appetite amongst voters for some kind of optimism about the future. The Conservatives should be frank about the problems facing Britain today and then offer a credible path forward that tackles those problems and so offers that brighter future.
Their analysis of what is wrong has to tied in with people’s lived experience, and be something they genuinely and deeply worry about. Moreover, this whole argument should not be just a way of dressing up whatever is the programme of the party at that moment. If the message of struggle and then reward is to be credible, it has to involve some difficult decisions that are uncomfortable for the advocates – only then is it credible that the mission really matters.
My candidate for this narrative is as follow. We used as a nation to be confident that our children were going to have better prospects than their parents. But now we are not so sure that our nation can deliver this promise. Conservatives understand this. We understand the deep human instinct to do whatever we can for our own children.
But it goes beyond that. We don’t want our children to grow up in a stultified, caste society where the only way to wealth and opportunity is to inherit it from parents. People should be able to earn their own way to property ownership. And our children will thrive best if they are part of a dynamic mobile economy, and that means we all gain if there are opportunities for other kids as well – whatever their background.
The Conservatives are the party of a property-owning democracy, and we will make spreading wealth to the next generation a priority. The reason why so many people are exercised about Inheritance tax is that inheritance is one of the crucial ways we help the next generation. So we understand the emotions it arises.
But that tax actually affects so few people that getting rid of it doesn’t do much to help the next generation achieve the Tory dream of property ownership for all. That involves building more houses in the places where young people actually want to live – and taking on the Nimbys. So we will offer a capital grant of say £10,000 to everyone on reach the age of 30 to help with the first deposit for a flat or to start up a business.
Over the past decade, benefits for pensioners have gone up ahead of inflation, whereas for families they have been cut below inflation. It was necessary to help pensioners out of poverty, but now many more families are in poverty than pensioners. So it is right to tackler to change the way our benefits system operates and to do a straightforward earnings link for all benefits.
And, yes, young people are right to worry about climate change and the world we are leaving to them – they are going to have to be responsible for emitting far less carbon dioxide during their lives than the older generation.
The sceptics ask if this pitch works with Tory voters who tend to be older. The generational divide in voting is the biggest single long term challenge to the future of the Conservative Party, so attracting some younger -or even middle-aged – voters is key. Research by political scientists at Nuffield College, Oxford which we launched at the Resolution Foundation last month, shows that one in four people aged over 40 have a younger relative who is financially struggling. That is 17 per cent of all potential voters.
These worries are even more acute among the over-60s who have different political priorities than other older voters – attaching much more weight to affordable housing, for example, and also vocational education. These voters are also much more evenly divided between Labour and Conservative than other older voters. Their votes will be influenced by proposals that help their children.
The appeal to fairness between the generations also has the advantage that it bridges many of the barriers that divide us. It crosses cultures and classes. It is an issue for middle class parents worrying about their children getting started on the housing ladder, and also for less affluent parents who may have walked into a job at a nearby factory, but don’t see how their children are going to earn a decent wage themselves.
Sometimes older voters go for a caricature of younger people to try to explain why they are having a tough time – it must be because they are woke snowflakes who spend all their money eating out and their time on social media and damaging their mental health when they should knuckle down and be more resilient.
This caricature of the young is wrong. The biggest surge of spending on eating out has been amongst people in their fifties and sixties, who are the ones whose incomes and wealth have grown most over the past decade. And most young people just want a decent job and a home of their own to raise their kids. That should not be radical or subversive.
This week sees the Labour Party’s conference. Because the issue of fairness across the generations stretches across so many political viewpoints, it would also be possible for them to pick this theme up with policies of their own. There is indeed scope for parties with different political philosophies to give their own distinctive approach to offering more to the younger generation. It would be dangerous for Conservatives to leave the whole issue to Labour. There really is an opportunity to be seized before it is too late.