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National service for Gen Z, tax breaks for boomers: Why 'desperate' Tories are chasing older voters

'It looks desperate. I suspect they probably are desperate. The mood inside Conservative Party headquarters must be pretty dire'

03/05/2024. Catterick , United Kingdom. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak inspects troops as he visits Catterick Garrison. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

The Conservatives are ‘on the side of pensioners’, prime minister Rishi Sunak has insisted.

For the Gen Z voters he recently threatened with conscription, this will come as no surprise.

Fresh from telling teenagers that a re-elected Conservative government would enlist them in mandatory national service, the Tories have pledged a £2.4bn tax cut for the retired population.

The twin policy pledges are both an attempt to shore up the baby boomer base, experts say. But they’re indicative of a party that knows they’re not going to win, said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

“Both announcements are bound to be seen as symptomatic of a Conservative campaign that is focused more on damage limitation than actually winning,” he said.

“They’re all about mobilising the base and trying to bring back some of those older and/or authoritarian voters who have drifted into the ‘don’t know’ column or even all the way over to Reform UK.”

The government is chasing the grey vote to try stave off electoral oblivion, said Nick Turnbull, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester.

“[The policies] go together – they’re aimed at getting core Conservative outers out to vote. If turnout among this group is bad, they’ve got a real problem, because normally safe seats will become marginal.”

“We know that retired people overwhelmingly do vote Conservative… [the Conservatives] know that they’re not going to win, so they’ll do whatever they can to get people out to the polls.”

Age is perhaps the biggest dividing line in British politics.

At the 2019 general election, a staggering 67% of the over-70 demographic voted Tory, while just 14% voted Labour. Meanwhile, a mere 21% of 18-24 year-olds voted for the Conservatives, while 56% voted for Labour.

For every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by around nine points, and the chance of them voting Labour decreases by eight points.

Facing grim political odds at the upcoming election, political strategists at Conservative HQ are putting all their eggs in the baby boomer basket.

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“The government has little or no interest in Gen Z voters right now because polling suggests both that they are beyond their reach anyway and that, in any case, so few of them – certainly relative to the over-65s – are likely to vote at all,” said Bale.

“Long term, it’s obviously not a great strategy – after all, research suggests that political affiliations often get locked in when people are in their early adulthood, so it’s best not to alienate younger people if you can help it. But, not unreasonably, the Tories are focused on the here and now rather than on the future.”

Announced over the long weekend, Tory national service plans would compel 18-year-olds to apply for one of 30,000 full-time military placements or volunteer one weekend per month.

Labour described the plans as a “desperate gimmick” – and they’ve been roundly mocked by Gen Z voters.

“If you can fix your parent’s iPad, you can fix an Apache helicopter,” one person joked on X.

The plans would cost £2.5bn to implement, and “wouldn’t work”, said Turnbull – but they might appeal to the Conservative base.

“[National service] is a classic Conservative thing, it implies young people aren’t tough enough, they’re snowflakes. You know, you could be saying it 50 years ago,” he said. “It appeals to an older demographic… they must have had some focus group testing that shows this will be popular.’

“But it looks desperate. I suspect they probably are desperate. The mood inside Conservative Party headquarters must be pretty dire.”

National service would “toughen British teenagers up”, said defence secretary Grant Shapps. But young people have already dealt with enough, argued Liz Emerson, co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation

“Younger generations have had to deal with a tsunami of issues over the past decade from the tripling of tuition fees, Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic and to a mental health crisis and cost-of-living crisis which has led to unprecedented rent inflation and homelessness. Meanwhile, the Grey Vote has been largely cosseted in spite of being the richest generation in history,” she said.

“What younger generations need is a housing service not national service. That means affordable housing; higher wages; fairer taxation; and a return to investment in their generation. The current message being sent to younger generations is that their votes simply don’t matter.”

The government made further overtures to pensioners on Monday (28 May), announcing a ‘triple lock plus’ on the state pension.

The state pension is increasing – but income tax thresholds have been frozen since 2021. This means that the state pension will exceed the tax-free personal allowance by around 2027.

The ‘triple lock plus’ would see the tax-free pension allowance increased at least 2.5% or in line with the highest of earnings or inflation. If it is implemented, pensioners will never have to pay tax on state-pension earnings.

Pensions already increase in line with inflation, meaning they rocketed by £900 this year alone. Meanwhile, the government continues to ignore young people, Turnbull said.

“Young people are being targeted implicitly with the national service rhetoric,” he said. “And while there are tax breaks for older people, there’s not much going for young people at all, there’s no real support for them.”

What it means for long term political loyalties remains to be seen – but it could drive Gen Z away from the Tories for good.

“We’ll have to see what the voting pattern looks like. But if young people really do swing to Labour, that can be embedded over a long period,” he added.

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