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3 November 2021

Can the Conservatives save the world for the young despite being a party of the old?

Many think there's a generational divide in politics – but climate change is one issue we agree on.

By Stephen Bush

One of the least surprising things about Rishi Sunak’s autumn Budget was that the Department for Education (DfE) did so poorly out of it. In a spending settlement that handed out real-terms increases across the British state, education received a comparatively meagre share of the Chancellor’s largesse.

The first reason for this is that Boris Johnson reshuffled his cabinet in the middle of negotiations between departments and the Treasury. For most  of the crucial conversations, education was being run by Gavin Williamson, whom almost everyone (correctly) predicted would be sacked. His requests for money were thus treated unfavourably by  the Treasury.

The second is that Sunak himself  was highly sceptical of the DfE’s solution to children falling behind in their learning during the pandemic. The government adviser Kevan Collins’s £15bn catch-up proposal majored on an extended  school day, the benefits of which the Chancellor regards as dubious at best. Those familiar with Sunak’s thinking highlight the pressures children already face in completing their daily lessons, and that extending school hours is an idea about which pupils, teachers and parents are ambivalent.

The combination of an education secretary on a downward trajectory and a Chancellor unconvinced by his flagship policy would have been damaging enough, but a third factor also contributed to the DfE’s lack of funding: demography.

[See also: Who were the winners from Rishi Sunak’s 2021 Budget?]

The United Kingdom has an ageing population and the Conservative Party relies disproportionately for its electoral support on the votes of the over-60s. That a great and growing number of British people are past retirement age means that the National Health Service faces ever-increasing costs. It also means that the electoral price of neglecting the NHS has become too great for the Tories to bear.  For much of the past decade, other departments, including the DfE, have had to make do with less money in order to free up cash for the NHS.

One Conservative MP gloomily refers to the Department of Health as the “building that swallows everything”. Even the NHS’s own capital expenditure budget has been dipped into because of the daily pressures on the service. Old equipment means that it costs more to run the NHS, so funds end up being spent on day-to-day costs – and the equipment remains outdated.

The government’s prioritisation of the NHS, and the elderly voters who depend on the service, underlines an important question: can a party that relies on the support of the old to retain office govern on behalf of the young, too?

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The appetite for intergenerational warfare is much stronger among the political class than outside it. Politicians, think-tankers and journalists gobble up books about how the old are stealing the future of the young, or the young are too contemptuous of the ways of the old.  But both Labour and Tory officials report  that in their focus groups, the idea that  old and young are at odds does not ring true. The work of Engage Britain, a charity that aims to resolve some of the UK’s knottiest policy problems through consultative democracy, also repeatedly finds that most people don’t accept this oppositional mentality.

The caricature of the voters the Tories have won over since 2010, under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, is not accurate. While it suits some MPs in both parties to pretend otherwise, the average older Tory voter cares deeply about the concerns of their (or their friends’) grandchildren, especially when it comes to climate change. From the card-carrying Tories who count David Attenborough among their heroes to the silver-haired protesters blocking roads  for the activist group Insulate Britain, environmentalism is an intergenerational affair – in the UK, at least.

[See also: Boris Johnson tells world leaders they’re failing on climate change]

Nonetheless, climate action does risk creating a conflict between the interests  of older and younger voters within the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. To pay for infrastructure such as greener heating systems for buildings, ministers must make decisions that could impact the finances of older or younger voters, depending on how the policies are designed. If the costs of such plans are borne collectively by taxpayers, the transition to cleaner forms of living will have to compete for the state’s resources with services chiefly used by the old, such as the NHS. If individual consumers pay, the costs will be put upon the young: those who will directly benefit from greener homes and businesses.

So far, the UK’s international climate diplomacy has yielded some significant results. A number of countries have made commitments to reaching net zero, while a new global reforestation pledge goes further than any previous agreement. It is easier for the British government to make the case for others to act because it has set ambitious net zero targets of its own. But it also helps that it can point to a record of cutting emissions and retaining elected office while doing so.

By proving that a government reliant on the votes of the old need not fail the young, the Conservatives can show other parties of the right that tackling climate change is not fatal for their electoral prospects. Whether he ultimately succeeds or fails, this will be the most consequential thing that Boris Johnson does as Prime Minister.

This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained