Monday 28 May 2018

Can the Tories Appeal to Young People?

Imagine a hole. Imagine a very deep and very wide hole, a hole so, so wide you can't see the sides. A crater so vast that its inhabitants can convince themselves they don't actually live in a hole. After all, they can see the sky and the horizon is clear. Said hole is the current abode of the Conservative Party. Among the matters to have located them there are internal disunity and their making a complete pig's ear of Brexit. If our electorate wasn't polarised the polls would register the hurt they're doling out. But because we do have a polarised country, there's no hiding from the fact Tory support is drawn disproportionately from declining sections of the population. Some Tories have been brave enough to scout out from their camp and, to their horror, discovered the sides of the hole cutting them off from the rest of the world. And realisation is dawning that it's going to take an awful lot to climb out.

This is the context the Centre for Policy Studies released their latest publication, New Blue: Ideas for a New Generation. This booklet has the brightest among the new intake offering policies they think (hope) will enable the party to connect with the rising generation of voters. As Robert Colville points out in his opening chapter, while 44% of 18-24s say they're certain to not vote Conservative, their attitudes aren't hostile to what he regards as Tory values. They are more likely than older age groups to believe in equal opportunities trump equality as a virtue, a plurality think government tax and spend too much, support the principle of paying for university, support zero hours contracts, and the freedom to of companies to make profits and pay their CEOs high salaries. Leaving aside any criticism we may have of the questioning underpinning the research, on the face of it the Tories are not facing millions of dyed-in-the-wool Corbynists - a point Labour people should also heed. The Tories might have a chance to win enough of them over to keep going.

What are the ideas on show? If you were expecting bold announcements and breaks with current practice, forget it. Don't take my word for it. On housing, for instance, the perennial Tory vote killer among the young (and, increasingly, the not-so young), Bim Afolami weighs in with a land value tax to be paid by landowners whose land has been earmarked for housing development. The monies raised would go to the local community, who would determine how it's spent. A bribe for NIMBYs, if you will. Lee Rowley, seemingly aware of the growing importance immaterial labour calls for "soft skills", collaborative working and critical thinking to be embedded in the curriculum. Helen Whately and Alys Denby note the rising incidences of mental illness among university students and calls for universities to take it more seriously with appropriate support staff, clear signposting of mental health services, and so on. Paul Masterson argues for the introduction of means testing for pensioners, and increasing the floor contribution working people make to pensions to 12% of salary. Nick Denys wants to see a new employment act that clearly defines employer, contractor, self-employed, etc. and wants to link worker representation on company boards to the "depoliticisation" of trade unions. Simon Clarke argues for more community ownership of renewable energy sources (wind, solar) and wants to scrap the effective ban on new on-shore wind turbines. Dolly Theis wants to see a more paternalistic approach to public health, Alan Mak (remember him?) wants to incentivise the move to a paperless NHS, Isabella Gornall wants Clean Air Zones in our cities, Luke Graham revives the idea of regional stock exchanges to facilitate access to capital, Emma Barr wants more mentoring for women to encourage them into politics and, um, on-the-spot digital fines for bad behaviour on social media. And my personal favourite, from Andrew Bowie, is the setting up of digital trails to rebalance the tourist economy away from London. Though, disappointingly, the Potteries do not feature in the plans he provides.

A right mixed bag of ideas, then. Taken in themselves, some of them aren't bad. Yes, you heard me right. Regional stock exchanges isn't, in and of itself, a mad suggestion. Especially alongside regional investment and development banks proposed by Labour. I'm all for deepening immaterial labour, and so yes, teaching soft skills is a very good thing. The state taking a more active interest in public health, encouraging alternative ownership of renewables, addressing the mental health crisis among students, measures to clean up polluted cities, even the trail idea all have something to commend them and are worth nicking where Labour doesn't already offer something better. That said, there are three problems with this collection overall.

The first is the presentation. Look at the contents page and what do you see? A list of authors (mostly new MPs) and the page numbers. To find out what they've written about requires you to go and see. This could just simply be an odd design choice, but it does lend itself to an impression that these essays are profile-raising exercises more than actual contributions to policy debate. The second problem is, well, how safe all the suggestions are. Take mental health and students, for instance. What it doesn't tell you is that all universities, whether they have a comprehensive wellbeing set up or not, find their mental health services massively oversubscribed. Asking institutions to provide more support staff and training is all very well, but in a cutthroat market in which there are plenty of providers but not enough takers - partly thanks to the Tory government's idiot approach to overseas' students - where are the resources coming from? This question can be asked of every single contribution aimed at improving something. IT in the NHS, joined-up public health strategies, bedding down relationship-centred education, you can't do this with a little bit of an incentive here and a target there unless government steps in with cash. And because these are ambitious, young MPs, they're hardly likely to use their introduction to the Westminster policy community by setting their face against the Treasury.

And the last thing, which will surely disappoint Tories concerned about the fate of their party, is the absence of any ideas appropriate to a strategy to reverse the long-term decline. Suppose all these things get in the next manifesto, suppose the Tories are able to limp back into government after the next general election (regrettably, not impossible), none of these policies will appreciably effect their fortunes. These essays do an excellent job of avoiding the predicament they're in and what the Tories need to do to offset oblivion. And that is a policy agenda that is not a race to the bottom, does not expect young people to be cheap and expendable wage slaves, actively builds its way out of the housing crisis, invests in public infrastructure. And, for the Tory party itself, a thorough detoxification that unambiguously embraces social liberalism and casts its hard right into the darkness. Effectively, for the Tories to save themselves in the medium to long-term, they have to stop being Tories. The chances of the party turning their cheek against the Brexit hard right and EU obsessives, the union bashers, the anti-immigration chunterers and assorted other pinheads are next to zero, but that's the direction political necessity is tending. What's it going to be? Is this a reinvention too far?


Shai Masot said...

Nowhere near tough enough on immigrants or anti-Semitism in my view.

Lidl_Janus said...

I'm not sure about that opening analogy. Is the hole that wide or deep, or is it that a large proportion of those in the hole are determined to cover the entire interior with anti-climb paint?