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1 June 2024

The unbearable predictability of the Tories’ war on young people

Rishi Sunak has a long history of putting himself on the wrong side of his own dividing lines.

By Jonn Elledge

The telling thing was the sip of the drink. “Compared to what you’ve done for pensioners,” Newsnight’s Victoria Derbyshire told Mark Harper on 28 May, “look at what you’ve done for young people.” As she launched into a list of ways in which the Tory government has made life harder for the young, the visibly uncomfortable Transport Secretary squirmed in his seat before taking a big sip from a coffee mug. He knew he had a while before he’d need to answer the question. He knew he’d be listening for some time yet.

The government’s war on the young has played an increasingly prominent role in British politics for several electoral cycles now, as the Tories have increasingly relied on the votes of pensioners at the expense of working people. From one perspective it looks a lot like, when it comes to voter behaviour, age is performing the function once played by class. From another – the one in which you consider how older voters had different experiences of work, pensions and, most of all, housing than the young have now – age may be just a proxy for education (of which the old generally had less) and capital (of which they have hugely, hugely more). The battle lines may have shifted, but this is the politics of class interest, all the same.

Either way, this Tory government has introduced a series of policies intended to benefit the people who were likely to vote for them at the expense of those who were not, which is what gave Derbyshire her list and Harper his coffee break: tuition fees, high house prices, the pensions triple lock, Brexit. Time and again, the benefits of policy have flowed to one part of the electorate, while their kids have picked up the bill.

This has worked well for the Tories, in so far as they’ve until recently had an annoying habit of winning elections. This past week, though, subtext has become text, and it’s just possible the strategy might be about to backfire.

First came the promise to reintroduce national service, a policy popular with older voters, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that no one under the age of 84 has done it. It’s not clear this actually would be national service, in the commonly understood meaning of the term: less than 5 per cent of the cohort would be expected to join the military, and most would instead, oxymoronically, do compulsory volunteer work.

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It is clear that the plan was not thought through, however. Just a few days earlier, ministers had been making statements insisting that the military top brass didn’t want it. After the announcement, it turned out, miraculously, that they did – even if ministers remained uncertain what carrots would be offered to those who served, what sticks would be used on those who refused, or whether parents would be punished for the actions of their adult kids (a question, surely, which should have an obvious answer).

Even the government’s outriders seemed confused: “Young people should welcome national service as a way to say thank you for furlough,” thundered a Telegraph column from a man inevitably named Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. But his column had to be edited multiple times, after readers pointed out that those affected by the policy were a decade too young to have benefited from furlough: they did their bit by giving up two years of their childhood to protect their elders. All the same, the point had been made. The old were to be sated, the young to be punished. If you are over 60, the message ran, the Tories are on your side. If not – well, more fool you.

This was the biggest, but by no means the only volley in the Tories’ new war on the young. There was the transformation of the triple lock into “triple lock plus” or “quadruple lock”, which brought to mind an old Onion story about razors (“F*** everything, we’re doing five blades”). The fourth lock turned out not to be as impressive as the other three, all of which concern increased payments: this one was merely a promise that the pension would never be taxed which, if the Chancellor had bothered raising tax thresholds in line with inflation, it would be in no danger of anyway. No matter: here was another benefit on offer to the old that was not available to the young.

Then came the promise to stop funding “Mickey Mouse university degrees”, in favour of apprenticeships. Which courses were for the chop, why this would be more successful than earlier attempts to expand apprenticeships, whether this was just to cover for the fact that, sooner rather than later, Tory mismanagement means a university is in serious danger of going bust – none of these things were discussed. But the over-seventies were confirmed, by ministers, in their suspicions about workshy kids today; all was right with the world.

Perhaps this will pay off. Perhaps the older voters who’ve defected to Reform have not done so over the cost of living, or the NHS, or the failure to control Britain’s borders as promised. Perhaps they did it instead because there were too many degrees in football studies, and a state pension protected by one lock too few.

But it must at least be possible that those voters are just gone – and that all these policies will do is motivate their children and grandchildren to vote against a party that openly hates them. Rishi Sunak has a long history of putting himself on the wrong side of his own dividing lines. And the danger of starting a war is that wars can be lost.

[See also: The petit bourgeois insurrection]

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