A spectre is haunting the modern Conservative Party; the spectre of youth turnout. Labour crushed the Conservatives among the under-40s, taking around 60 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives took just under a quarter. Adding to Tory misery, the young voted in higher-than-usual numbers. The result? The loss of the first Conservative parliamentary majority for 23 years.
Understandably, much of the party’s policy post-mortem has focused on what the party can do to win back young voters. (The average age in the United Kingdom is 40, so for the purposes of this piece, I am defining “younger voters” as 39 and under, and older voters as 40 and over.)
In good news for Labour, the Tories have largely settled on one particular policy area: tuition fees. They spend a large chunk of the summer pointing out that the policy wouldn’t extend to existing graduates and are now trying to work out their own policy offer.
Will Tanner, a former aide to Theresa May, has used his debut column in the i to suggest some policy levers that the government could pull to win back this group, including reintroducing maintenance grants and tinkering with the rate of interest paid on tuition fee debt.
The first is unquestionably good policy. As I wrote in 2015, when George Osborne scrapped maintenance grants and replaced them with maintenance loans, the policy is effectively the same as having two tax bands at £45,000 – one of 42p for people who have come from wealth, and one of 45p for people who grew up in poverty. That maintenance payments are not generous enough also helps contribute to the drop-out rate among poorer students and forces them to take on additional jobs, not for luxuries but merely to get by, which also further harms academic performance.
The second will mean that slightly more people will pay off the total debt but we are talking about very, very small numbers – in effect, regardless of the interest rate, the way that the £9,000 fees work for most graduates is as a capped, 30-year graduate premium on income tax. It’s not a bad policy but it’s not going to move the earth.
The difficulty with both these policies is that polling consistently shows that while tuition fees exercise students who have yet to pay them, they are consistently among the bottom of issues as far as graduates who have actually started repaying their fees go. Once someone starts paying, the whole system is indistinguishable from everything else they lose through payroll taxes.
Just as very few people are more upset at how much they pay in national insurance as opposed to income tax, the whole bill is secondary to the question of how much money graduates have in their pockets when they’re paid.
As I’ve written before, it seems unlikely that Labour’s big gains among 18-24 year olds weren’t a result of the party’s pledge to scrap tuition fees. If you spend £11.2bn on a voter group, you are almost certainly going to get their votes. If the Conservatives want to compete with this group, they have only really got one option: scrap fees entirely.
Tinkering with interest rates or maintenance grants aren’t going to fix the problem. (Though it’s worth highlighting that reintroducing maintenance grants and increasing their level is a far better policy than anything either of the big two is proposing do as far as tuition fees go.)
The much bigger problem for the Conservatives wasn’t that they did badly among students – it was that they did badly among voters aged 24 to 40. (And indeed, 40 to 55).
The big problem is issues that used to be the preserve of students and people on the first rung of post-16 employment – insecure tenancies in the private rented sector, loose employment contracts in which most of the benefits of flexibility accrue to the employer – are increasingly being felt up the age distribution. Add to that the politically toxic effects of planned cuts to schools and you have the far more electorally decisive switch in this election – of 30-somethings, 40-somethings and even 50-somethings to Labour from the Conservatives.
The good news for the Conservatives is that many of these problems could be fixed for far less than the £11.5bn necessary to match Labour’s tuition fee policy. The great news for Labour is that so little of the government or its outriders’ energy is focused on how to do it.