When the 6th Duke of Westminster was asked what advice he’d give to young entrepreneurs, he replied: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.” He was being ironic.
When, on these pages, Sir John Wheeler mused about policies to help attract young people to conservatism, he said: “Parents and grandparents with property and assets are sometimes in a position to make gifts of cash but this is limited to £3,000 a year. Why not make this £20,000?”
And so, I must respectfully disagree with Sir John; the truth is that, for many in the country, his proposed route to wealth is as improbable as the Duke’s. Today £20,000 is roughly what is left after tax from the UK median annual salary. How many people can simply gift a year’s salary?
Or imagine what Labour’s attack machine would make of an inheritance tax cut in a week when the usurious interest on student loans, the public sector pay-cap and concerns about the Grenfell Tower tragedy were all in the news? I find it hard to conceive of a policy – an IHT cut – more likely to result in Jeremy Corbyn being carried shoulder-high into Downing Street, unless it were to require nurses to go fox-hunting in exchange for their pay-rise.
It is true that many older people own their own property outright, and are probably relieved to have paid off the mortgage after 30 years of hard graft. But “releasing equity” sounds so harmless, doesn’t it? As though you could slice off a small portion of your bungalow and sell it to a friendly local merchant, passing the cash on to your children with smiles all round. In reality, it means taking on the burden of repayments, out of a small pension income, with the associated risk of repossession. Property bestows security – you finally have a place that is yours, no-one can take it from you. Are we seriously proposing that a Conservative policy is to insist that people live in debt for their entire lives?
Worse than that, the implication is that conservatism is only open to those who already have family wealth. If the only new Conservatives are the children of existing Conservatives, then the Conservative gene will eventually die out.
The Tory party does not need any more people to give up listening to its arguments. Indeed, the fatal flaw in Theresa May’s manifesto was that it was all too easy for people to say that “they’re not the party for me”.
Frustratingly, many of the moderate Labour types who were told by the Corbynistas to “f*** off and join the Tories” might actually have done so if a little more care had been taken about what was written on the welcome mat. The failure to convert these voters was probably the biggest missed opportunity in British politics of the last 40 years.
The Conservatives must stop thinking of only the “haves” and “have-yachts” as potential members and voters and instead think about those who have nothing to their name: a migrant newly arrived in the country, a teenager released from the care system, a thirty-year-old in London whose parents cannot spare anything like the £50k required to put a deposit on a studio flat.
Corbynism is rampant because there is a critical mass of people who see themselves, and every one of their peers, in the same situation. It is a self-perpetuating belief system; when you don’t know a single person of your age who can afford a house, how can you believe that you might? Why would you even try?
To counter this movement, the Tories need to remove sufficient members from the group so that its internal logic no longer holds. Actually, they need them to remove themselves. There are some already on the edge, disaffected by the cruel reality of “kinder, gentler politics” who must be supported in thinking their way out of Corbynism and into conservatism.
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There are three parts to this for the Tories:
Come up with policies that will genuinely help those at the bottom.
Argue the case for those policies relentlessly.
Give people permission to think differently, demonstrating that the left does not own the freehold on compassion.
So, what policies can be offered to someone who believes their only route to financial security passes through Jeremy Corbyn’s redistributive paradise?
First, education. Too many people complete university only to find that they are not qualified for graduate jobs despite their degree and the associated debt. How can they be helped to move on and how can we prevent more people finding themselves in this situation?
For a start, student loan repayments should be taken before income-tax is levied, like pension contributions, and the interest rate should be tied to the base rate, not inflation. Universities should be forced to publish employment rates and future income for all their courses, with data from HMRC. Students should be able to claw-back fees from universities who deliver poor-value courses. The post-graduate student loan scheme should be extended to allow people to have a second chance at getting the right qualification. Embrace Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), creating a route by which studying on Coursera or EdX can lead to a degree. Make university scholarships offered by businesses fully tax-deductible on condition that there is a guaranteed graduate position at the end.
Second, offer genuine assistance for people to create their own wealth without relying on an intergenerational cash transfusion to get started, and without the fear of falling foul of regulations.
The gig economy is bursting with opportunity for conservatives. If a person is self-employed, even just working for Uber, TaskRabbit or Deliveroo, they are a mini-entrepreneur. But how do they take the next step? How can they be protected from exploitation? The government should be faster in banning restrictive practices like when companies offering zero-hour contracts were forced to remove exclusivity clauses. The Taylor Report is an attempt to address these questions.
But Conservatives should recognise that the power of the state can be used for the benefit of all. They must create a framework for a more equitable capitalism.
Start with the premise that the big guys can watch out for themselves – it’s the little guys who need help. For example, set a legal limit for maximum payment terms; there is no reason why payment should take longer than 30 days, let alone 120.
Then design a low-regulation “starter” company structure with associated lighter regulations and be more relaxed about accidental infringements of bureaucratic standards until a company reaches a certain stage. Create individual tax accounts so that if a person earns £100 for a day’s work they can immediately pay the tax that’s due on it without needing to bother an accountant.
It also needs to be easier to convert income to property. Find ways to reduce the requirement for deposits on property, the biggest single obstacle to a family affording their own home. Encourage innovation in financial services – perhaps pension companies could offer shared ownership of property, linked to an individual’s pension fund.
Once a set of policies has been identified, set to work selling them. Identify the most talented communicators in the party and get them writing articles, presenting documentaries, and generally talking to anyone who will listen. They don’t even have to all agree with each other – just get the strands of conservative thinking on the air.
Labour had great success at the election despite the apparent gaping contradictions in its position. Keir Starmer would be talking about “soft Brexit” even while John McDonnell was pushing to leave the single market. Meanwhile Theresa May’s team enforced strict message discipline while not even defending it herself. Only one of those methods worked.
Finally, the Tories mustn’t be afraid to talk about the morality. They might disparage virtue-signalling but human nature demands that people can feel confident that they’re not “the bad guys”.
P J O’Rourke once wrote that a politician who portrays himself as “caring” and “sensitive” because he wants to expand the government’s charitable programs is merely saying that he’s willing to try to do good with other people’s money. Well, who isn’t? And a voter who takes pride in supporting such programs is telling us that he’ll do good with his own money – if a gun is held to his head.
That is is the Corbyn Gambit; that he is uniquely kind and compassionate because he is prepared to hand out sweeties paid for with other people’s money taken under threat of imprisonment. Is this moral? Robbing Peter to pay Paul is always popular with Paul, but even a five-year-old could point out the holes in the argument. It’s only a surprise that so few Conservative MPs are willing to do so in public.
Will what I suggest work? Well, it couldn’t hurt. Maybe the Tories should ask atypical Conservatives like John Major, Eric Pickles, David Davis, and Stephen Crabb to talk about what led them to join the Conservative Party. Whatever it was, I’ll bet it wasn’t the prospect of cutting inheritance tax.