Won’t someone think of the children?” was not a phrase that could be meaningfully uttered at the Conservative party conference this week.
Indeed, every fringe event you wandered into had something to say about the youth vote.
If the panel discussion wasn’t specifically about policies to impress millennials or to tackle intergenerational unfairness, the topics usually managed to come up anyway: what do young people care about, why have they set up camp in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, and what can be done to win them back to a centre-right agenda?
The curiosity and desire of MPs in particular to address these points struck me as genuine, but it became increasingly clear over the four-day conference that the right lessons have not been learned from June’s surprise General Election results. The Conservative party now appears to be no closer to addressing the concerns of the young – or those of the public at large.
Theresa May kicked off the start of the conference by laying out two gimmicks directly targeted at under-40s: an addition £10bn investment in Help to Buy, and a freeze on university tuition fee increases. If May is trying to compete with Labour on lofty giveaways, both policy proposals fall extremely short compared to the (unfunded) offers of the opposition.
But more crucially, these kinds of pledges are not what young people are looking for.
The Help to Buy policy is unmistakably a middle-class handout, which will serve a few people very well; but a move to increase the demand of housing while not addressing supply will have a substantially negative impact on people towards the lower end of the salary spectrum, as house prices are likely to rise even further when the influx of state cash hits the market.
Furthermore, the freeze on university fees means nothing to young people who aren’t pursuing higher education – and for those who are, it does not change the fact that they are paying thousands of pounds more per year without having seen any notable changes or improvements to the university experience itself. The promise to not to increase fees still begs the question of what they’re actually getting for £9,000 a year as it stands now.
Neither pledge even begins to address the fundamental distortions in the housing and education markets which put young people at odds with achieving crucial milestones.
But it wasn’t simply the promises made by the Conservative leadership that suggested they were still out of touch with the younger half of the electorate. It was also what was left unsaid – the refusal to tackle the policies that are increasing the tax burden that will fall on young people down the road.
The ratio between retired people and workers in the UK currently stands at 28 to 100. By 2064, this is estimated to rise to 47 to 100. The demographic shift will prove both problematic and expensive on a number of fronts, including pension liabilities and healthcare costs (the majority of which come in the last phase of life).
Yet the Conservative party still remains committed to the winter fuel allowance and the triple lock on pensions, and remains sceptical of immigrant workers who are helping to put more into the public purse than they are taking out.
Few MPs (with the exception of brave types like Owen Paterson) are willing to discuss alternative funding models to the NHS, or bolder reforms to improve the NHS as a whole.
There has been growing evidence that the public is becoming more supportive of state-centric policy and industry nationalisation, and this has given free marketeers a shock. However, it is not obvious that the generations of Netflix and Uber are inherently socialist, so the Tory slide along the statism scale seems unlikely to help them win youth support. Instead, they need new, pro-market ideas to tackle the intergenerational divide.
What is obvious is that the kids are not alright with the status quo – and the Tories half-hearted attempts to change direction aren’t fooling anyone.