This week in the Commons, the Government introduced the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill. It’s a technical bit of legislation that will allow ministers to increase the state pension next year, keeping the 'Triple Lock' promise that pensions will rise in line with wages, inflation or 2.5 per cent, depending on which is highest.
It also confirms that the Conservative party is continuing its journey towards becoming the Grey party, unravelling Britain’s social contract and generally forgetting what it means to be conservative. Even before the coronavirus, the Tories were becoming the party of the old. Responses to the Covid pandemic could accelerate that movement.
In the 2010 general election, the Tories got 37 per cent of the vote overall. Their vote among people aged 18-24 was 30 per cent. Among those over 65+, it was 44 per cent. In the most recent YouGov poll, which puts the Tories on 39 per cent, the Tory vote among the youngest demographic was down to 10 per cent. Among over 65s, it’s now 62 per cent. This is not business as usual. Yes, older voters have always skewed towards the Tories, but that sort of gap is extreme and unhealthy.
Covid threatens to widen it further. Ultimately, lockdown and today’s semi-lockdown policies constitute a choice to disrupt the careers and lives of younger people to protect the health of older people. Now, as a health policy, that’s perfectly legitimate, and quite possibly the least bad option available. What bothers me is some of the non-health policies that have accompanied that choice on public health.
'Don’t kill gran,' ministers tell the young. In truth, the full Tory message should be 'Don’t Kill Gran – give her your money instead.'
Boris Johnson – and this is a policy driven by No. 10, not the Treasury – has chosen to defend the Triple Lock even as the retail and hospitality sectors, the biggest employers of younger workers, go off a cliff. Imagine what it’s like being young and at the start of your career right now. The evidence of previous crises suggests that the economic 'scarring' effect of starting your career in a downturn means lower wages for a decade and more.
Elsewhere, the Government failure to grip and reform higher education and encourage a proper shift to online learning has culminated in the grotesque spectacle of students paying £9k to be locked up in halls like young offenders. Earlier this year, we saw a decision, perhaps an unwitting one, to make children’s education a lower priority; the costs of half a year of disrupted education will be borne by children (especially ones from poorer homes) for the rest of their lives.
And while younger people struggle, next year they will see pensioners hit the jackpot. The triple lock’s wage element is based on annualised wage growth in each May-July period. In that period this year, wages were hammered by lockdown and furlough. From that low base, next year’s figure for the same period is likely to be big – big enough to cause political trouble.
The Government this week lit a fuse that will next year detonate the political firework of pensioners getting a bump of 5, 6 or 7 per cent on their state pensions at the same time as many younger people are still trying to cope with unemployment and disrupted lives and careers.
2019 and demographic change – the old grow more numerous every day – might have persuaded some Tories that the Grey Vote will save them. But grey voters care about their kids and grandkids as well as their own purses. Talking to some Conservative MPs this week, I was struck by how several said that their local party faithful – who tend to be older and wealthier – are raising concerns about their younger family members and the impact of Covid-restrictive policies on them. They’re worried about the country that later generations will inherit.
That focus on the future is something that I think helps explain why the Conservatives had a broader appeal across generations in 2010, and what’s missing today. In 2010, David Cameron and George Osborne successfully framed a fiscal crisis as a burden on future generations, and positioned the Conservatives as the party that would champion those future generations.
These days, Labour is showing signs of trying to own that future. Keir Starmer’s promise to make Britain 'the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in' is a sharp challenge to Conservatives, one the Grey party does not yet have an answer to.
Perhaps that’s because the Tories have forgotten Edmund Burke. Most people know what he said about society being a contract between the generations, living and not yet born. But some of his other words are worth quoting at length here, since he warned of the sort of resentful social unravelling that can follow when one generation leaves only a 'ruin' of a nation the next:
“...one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances, as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers.
“By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways, as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.
By amplifying intergenerational unfairness and grievance, the Grey party’s response to the coronavirus threatens to make us all flies of summer. And that is no way to enter a long, dark winter.