To win, Cameron must make a game-changing offer to the young middle-classes
“Britain’s on the right track, don’t turn back”. When George Osborne invoked Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 campaign slogan last year, it was the clearest message about what is set to be the Conservatives’ overarching campaign message at the next general election. But even if green shoots have begun to bear fruit, it is still going to be very hard for the Party to win a majority, especially under the existing boundaries.
Despite a consistent mid-term lead for Labour in the opinion polls, those same polls indicate that the British people would still prefer David Cameron in Downing Street to Ed Miliband. So of course, if the Chancellor’s economic medicine starts to produce results that people can feel, and the Tories can successfully paint Miliband as a risk the country can’t afford to take, the Conservatives could yet turn things around. But given the Tories’ inability to win outright in 2010 despite relatively benign conditions and an unpopular Prime Minister, the best case scenario for the Party, on current trends, is surely another unwelcome coalition.
So while the campaign message may be lifted from 1983, there is no transformative military victory on the horizon. But is there a game-changer out there that could swing the odds in the Tories’ favour? How could the Conservatives get towards the magic 40% figure, which gives them a chance of the 7% lead they need to win that elusive majority?
There are a number of reasons why age will be at the forefront of Tory strategists’ thinking. David Cameron’s party is torn between old and young on two key fronts. First, the Conservatives are understandably anxious to retain the ‘grey vote’. Older voters are more likely to turn out, and to vote Tory, than younger voters. So perhaps it’s no surprise that David Cameron pledged so publicly in 2010 to preserve the financial benefits – protected pensions, free prescriptions, bus passes and TV licences – bestowed on them by Gordon Brown. Secondly, the UKIP sales pitch, targeted explicitly at the grey vote, only adds to the temptation for David Cameron to tread very carefully with any policy changes affecting older voters, with recent polling indicating that those who say they intend to vote UKIP are overwhelmingly old and more likely to hold right-of-centre views.
The intuitive, conventional response to these challenges has been twofold: continue to protect pensioner benefits in all their guises and to reach out to the Tory right to prevent further leakage to UKIP. Or, to go further, as one Tory MP called for this weekend, and “firm-up our Conservative instincts”. These responses are the right ones if the strategy is to hang on, hope for a bit of economic growth, pray that Labour don’t get their act together, and get hitched to the Lib Dems again. But if the goal is a securing a majority, this is an insufficient response. Winning requires taking some larger risks and a big part of that is to find a way to increase support from younger voters.
The biggest issue in British society today is that younger people’s prospects are less secure and more uncertain than at any time since the 1970s. People of my generation are saddled with large debts from university or college, struggling to find a decent job, resigned to decades of expensive tenancies which will prevent them from saving for a deposit on a house of their own, or moving up the ladder even if they can. And they aren’t naive enough to believe they’ll be cosseted by the state when they (finally) get to retire.
Of course, older people want to hang on to their perks. But they’re old, not stupid. They know they have benefited from the economic growth over the last thirty years, evidenced most clearly in the value of their house. But they also know that this prosperity has an impact on the young. It is the young that are paying more heavily for the Bust that followed the Boom. Older people know this. After all, they have families – we are their children and grandchildren. Do we really think they can’t handle an honest conversation about fairness between the generations?
Risk-averse political parties are, on the whole, refusing to properly engage with this structural issue. Two thirds of welfare spending goes on pensioners, yet we have nearly a million young people out of work, a chronic housing shortage and a huge skills deficit. One way that David Cameron could address this might be to acknowledge what older voters already know – and begin to talk about a new bargain between the generations. He could say to older voters: we know you don’t want to give up any of your state benefits, but we’ve got to give your grandson a better education; we know you don’t want your town to change, but your daughter and her family need a house she can afford; we know you need a good pension, but we’re all going to have to pay for the costs of your social care. You might call this notion the Big Society, if the name wasn’t already taken.
A new majority could be built on attracting those younger, middle-class voters in marginal seats who were once the Tories’ natural supporters. So an honest conversation with older voters about their welfare costs could be combined with a bold new pitch to the aspiring middle classes – the lifeblood of the Aspiration Nation. It could, for instance, include action on house-building and the rental and mortgage markets, cuts to tuition fees for poorer students, reductions in fuel duty, additional investment in apprenticeships and vocational skills, further tax cuts for small businesses, an increase in the minimum wage funded by cuts to tax credits, more help on childcare and more choice and competition in key public services.
A new majority would also require taking a calculated risk in respect of UKIP and modernisation. Like it or not, younger generations are more liberal, cosmopolitan and internationalist in outlook. In the early days of his leadership, younger people probably felt that David Cameron was one of them – comfortable with the modern world and prepared to move his party into the twenty-first century.
But every time his Party talks to itself about gay marriage or calls for an EU referendum before breakfast, it runs the risk of switching floating voters off. And every time David Cameron panders to the right, or doesn’t lead from the front in modernising the Party, he misses an opportunity. It also fails to move the opinion polls an inch. Regardless of what you think about the issue, would the Cameron of 2006 have missed the House of Commons debate on the Equal Marriage Bill, or would he have stood up, been authentic, and said what he really thought in an historic – and yes, controversial – speech?
Building a new majority will be high-risk, difficult and might end up taking more than 100 weeks. Having a leader who consistently out-polls the other guy – and his own party – is a good start. But that alone will not be enough. A majority will require trusting that the electorate would respond to a compelling notion of aspiration, backed up with a game-changing offer for the young middle classes. It will also mean maintaining older voters’ support, while at the same time embarking on a new conversation about the Responsible Society and fairness between the generations. And it will require a new clarity of leadership from a politician at ease with Britain as it is, not as it was, and prepared to raise the level of public debate about the most important issues facing the country.