The Conservatives must counter the narrative that they’re the party of the elderly by taking a hard line on older voters — even if that means forgoing the next election
The trouble with the Conservative Party right now is they don’t realise they’re already dead. And so, they continue pandering to older voters in the false hope it will bring them electoral salvation, when in reality they’re only digging their graves deeper still.
This time, the government is trying to lure over 50s, who have driven a sharp national increase in economic inactivity since the pandemic, back into the workplace by exempting them from income tax entirely — perhaps for a year.
The move is clear proof that the popular view of Conservatives as the party of the elderly is correct. Pandering to older voters at all costs isn’t a winning strategy. If the party wants to enjoy electoral success ever again, it must counter this narrative. It needs to start using a stick rather than a carrot, and it can start right now: Instead of coaxing indolent over 50s back to work with tax breaks, Conservatives should be taxing them for their inactivity.
The rise in economic inactivity among 50-64 year olds since the pandemic is understandably of great concern to the government. In May to July 2022, there were 386,096 more economically inactive adults in this age group than in the pre-COVID-19 period. Thought to be caused by the ‘Great Resignation’, this harms the economy by reducing the tax base and squeezing already tight labour supply.
But the government’s suggestion of waiving taxes for returning workers is a total non-starter. How satisfied would over 50s who’ve remained in work be if their early-retiring contemporaries returned on a red carpet of tax incentives? Expect a marked increase in sabbaticals if this proposal goes through.
More importantly, this policy signals to voters the Conservatives are willing to put older generations on an unjustifiable pedestal. How could it be reasonable to introduce yet another policy that will increase generational inequality when so much of our national wealth is already tied up in boomer’s property and pensions? How can it be right that older people will be net beneficiaries of the welfare state when younger generations are expected to pay so much into a system from which they can expect so little in return?
Instead of using a ‘carrot’ to entice older workers back into employment, the government should use a ‘stick’ to push them back in. Chris Smyth, the Whitehall Editor at The Times, floated taxing these workers back into employment, while political commentator Sam Freedman wrote a “big wealth tax including primary residence should sort it”.
Of course, both jokingly acknowledged that the Conservatives won’t do this. Smyth said this “obviously isn’t going to happen”, while Freedman responded to the Director at the Centre for Policy Studies, Robert Coville’s, dismay with a tongue in cheek reply, “what, you don’t think my patented ‘total electoral suicide’ policy is a runner?”
But these are exactly the kind of policies the Conservatives need to bring forward. The party faces a generational crisis. A recent YouGov poll put the Conservatives at 25% — hardly a winnable position — but that drops to just 16% for under 50s. Similarly, the Financial Times’ John Burn-Murdoch sent shockwaves through Conservative circles with his research showing millennials are bucking the trend by not becoming more right wing as they age. Not only have the Conservatives already lost 2024, these demographics show it’s possible they’ll never win again.
Conservatives should listen to Daniel Finkelstein and start acting as if they’ve already lost the 2024 election to accelerate their transformation into an electable party. The Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh’s sage advise to Keir Starmer offers lessons to the Conservatives about how to do this. Ganesh argued that Labour needs to act right-wing to convince voters they’ve moved beyond Jeremy Corbyn. Similarly, the Conservatives need to show they’re willing to take a tough line on older people to show they’re no longer a geriatric special interest group.
Policies aimed at young people will not be enough. Onward’s new Director Sebastian Payne’s focus on housing and childcare, though welcome, won’t cut it. Voters need to see the party has changed its colours by severing ties with its traditional, ageing base.
That may mean throwing the next general election, and it will require Rishi Sunak to swallow his pride and realise he’s a transitional Prime Minister, but you can only play the cards you’re dealt. Pandering to a demographic of waning importance is myopic.
If the Conservative Party is to have a future, it must slay its old self that’s reliant on old voters. Only then might it rise, phoenix like, reborn.