Students protesting against higher tuition fees in 2010. Photo: Getty
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Leader: We need a progressive contract, not conflict between the generations

The creation of such a generational war is precisely the intention of Conservative policy, but it is a dividing line that progressives should be wary of embracing.

One does not need to study Conservative policy for long to identify the group the party is most concerned with attracting. The year began with David Cameron promising to maintain the “triple lock” on the state pension, so that it rises in line with whichever is highest – inflation, earnings or 2.5 per cent – for the entirety of the next parliament.

Then, with a Lawsonian flourish, George Osborne used the Budget to announce the end of all restrictions to accessing private pension pots and the introduction of new high-interest state bonds for the retired. Finally, at an event hosted by Saga magazine on 24 March, Mr Cameron suggested that the Tories would repeat their past pledge to raise the inheritance-tax threshold to £1m at the next general election (so far unfulfilled this parliament) and came close to ruling out the means-testing of universal benefits for the wealthy elderly.

Whatever the merits and demerits of these proposals, they all derive from cold electoral logic: pensioners are more inclined to vote. At the 2010 general election, 76 per cent of those over 65 voted, more than any other age group. Conversely, just 44 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds did, a smaller percentage than any other age group.

In the case of the young, the cap on tuition fees has been tripled to £9,000, the Education Maintenance Allowance has been abolished and the Future Jobs Fund has been scrapped. In the case of the old, the state pension has been increased, universal benefits have been ring-fenced and NHS funding has been protected. Even as they pledged to shield the elderly from austerity in the next parliament, the Tories have vowed to extend it for the young. Mr Osborne has signalled his intention to abolish housing benefit for the under-25s and the universities minister, David Willetts, has hinted at another rise in tuition fees.

Faced with this inequality, many respond by urging not more generous treatment of the young but less generous treatment of the old. Benefits, they argue, should be restricted to all but the most needy and the state pension should no longer be protected. The creation of such a generational war is precisely the intention of Conservative policy. It allows the Tories to frame themselves as the party of responsible pensioners, in contrast to Labour, the party of the feckless young.

It is a dividing line that progressives should be wary of embracing. Contrary to works such as Mr Willetts’s The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole Their Children’s Future and Why They Should Give It Back (a rift ironically encouraged by his higher education policies), the divisions within generations remain more significant than those between them. As a study published in February called Intergenerational and Intragenerational Equity by the economist Jonathan Portes concluded: “The circumstances of your birth and early life (who your parents are, education, gender, ability, effort and just plain luck) still matter far more – indeed, more so than before – than when you were born.”

Rather than a battle between young and old, the age of austerity is defined by a battle between rich and poor. Under the last Labour government, 900,000 pensioners were lifted out of poverty but 17 per cent of over-65s still fall below the line; the UK ranks 23rd out of 27 European countries. Having fallen by 800,000 between 1997 and 2010, child poverty is forecast to rise by 600,000 by 2015. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned, “Despite the impact of universal credit, the overall impact of reforms introduced since April 2010 is to increase the level of income poverty in each and every year from 2010 to 2020.”

To combat these ills, rather than a race to the bottom between the young and the old we need a progressive contract between the generations. This would include the introduction of universal childcare to allow more parents to return to work and to improve early-years outcomes, the integration of health and social care to end the so-called warehousing of the elderly, and the introduction of a mansion tax and land value tax to ensure that all those, young and old, benefiting from rising property prices contribute in return. In addition, the deracinated plutocrats who are buying up swaths of London must be brought into taxation through wealth and asset taxes. As politicians seek to divide them, here is an agenda all generations can unite around.

The NS debate at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 5 April will see Shiv Malik, Laurie Penny, Simon Heffer, Kwasi Kwarteng, Mansoor Hamayun and Allison Pearson discuss the motion "this house believes that baby boomers left society worse than they found it". For more details and tickets visit cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.