9 April 2019

More Mayism is the last thing the Conservatives need


Onward is a Conservative think tank that says it wants to give “new ideas for the next generation”. This week it has released polling that tries to figure out what would get more people under 35 (“young people”) to vote Conservative. The results are counterintuitive, suggesting that, among other things, young people want less immigration and policies that prevent more housing from being built.

Onward’s conclusion is that young people want more of the kinds of policies that Theresa May has advocated during her time as Prime Minister – its ten point plan to appeal to younger voters includes new ideas like “Control immigration”, “Protect the environment, including the green belt”, “Keep taxes low” and “Balance the public finances”, as well as slightly vaguer aspirations like “Do more to win over ethnic minorities” and “Give women more reason to be positive” (which does sound a little like the policy equivalent of telling women on the bus to “smile more”).

Given that Onward’s director, Will Tanner, was Mrs May’s special advisor for four years before becoming her Deputy Head of Policy at Downing Street ahead of the disastrous 2017 election, you can see why they are so pleased by their poll’s results. It turns out that he and the Prime Minister were right all along, and the solution to winning the support of more than just 14 per cent of 18-24 year olds is just to do more of what they have been doing. (Onward fails to mention that their own poll shows that the 2015 Conservative manifesto polls considerably better than the 2017 document.)

The good fortune of policies Onward regards as effective also being popular is probably more than just a coincidence. Most of the policy questions are framed without any acknowledgement of trade-offs – for example, people may want to “protect the green belt” in the abstract, but if they were asked about “protecting the green belt even if it meant rents and house prices being higher than they are now” they might be less enthusiastic. Everyone wants “government that lives within its means”, except when doing so means raising taxes or cutting spending.

On one of the few occasions where a question is framed in terms of trade-offs, when respondents are asked whether they would like to cut immigration even if it hurt the economy, every group under the age of 45 opts against cutting immigration, and 18-24 year olds by a 28-point margin.

This finding did not lead Onward to conclude that the Conservatives should adopt liberal immigration policies — presumably because that wouldn’t be Mayite enough.

Results like this are to be expected from a poll commissioned by a think tank which, after all, is trying to convince a party interested in getting reelected to implement the policies it wants. More remarkable is the fact that the elephant in the room, Brexit, is ignored almost entirely – perhaps the fact that the Conservatives have associated themselves as strongly as they could with Brexit, which old people love and young people hate, has something to do with things? Instead it is treated like a natural phenomenon rather than a Conservative policy, designed and advanced by Conservative governments.

Whatever the wording of the questions, I doubt whether a poll that asks people to rank particular proposals is a good way of deciding on public policy. Most voters pay too little attention to the news to notice policies that are designed for them by focus groups, instead preferring heuristics that look at the general strength of the economy, their own personal situation, and their perceptions of the competence and values of the parties they can choose from.

For example, Labour’s success on housing among young people was probably not down to the fact they proposed rent controls per se, but that in doing so they were indicating to young people and other renters that Labour cared about them. They understood that renting in Britain is miserable.

Doing things with this in mind, the way to win over most voters may not be to focus on policy inputs, which everyone except highly engaged voters will basically ignore, but policy outcomes. So, for example, rather than asking people to rank policies like “tax breaks for landlords who sell to tenants” and “let local councils borrow to build new housing”, the wisdom of which even extremely well informed people disagree on, it may be more useful to ask about people’s priorities and what outcomes they would value.

Many young people seem to be delaying having children because of the cost of housing a family – what trade-offs would people be willing to accept if it meant that they could settle down when they wanted to, not well into their thirties when they could finally afford to?

There are lots of free policies that could help the Tory party among young people, like to stop calling anyone who has ever left Mansfield a “citizen of nowhere”. And perhaps to forget about reintroducing fox hunting – one of the few policies in the 2017 Conservative manifesto that younger voters actually noticed, along with the dementia tax and the abandonment of the ivory sale ban.

Harder would be to change tack on Brexit, where the party has talked itself onto a window-ledge and can hardly step back now, or immigration, which even Onward’s polling suggested was quite popular with young people, and which surveys with less of a stake in the outcome suggest is very popular with them.

But when it comes to elections, most policy is mood music. What matters is results: can I afford a house big enough for the family I want to have, close enough to the job I want? Can I expect to progress in a career I’m fulfilled by, that pays reasonably well? Do I feel safe in my neighbourhood when I go out at night? The wonky policies that think tanks usually stick to will never poll well. My next-door neighbours will probably never have a strong view about corporation tax expensing schedules. But if they’re good ideas, implemented competently, the outcomes will be enough.

I’m less convinced that the Tories’ main problem in the 2017 election was not enough Theresa May. Onward’s survey is interesting enough, but in the poll that actually mattered, the policies it proposes went down like a lead balloon. We’ve tried Mayism already – it’s not popular and it doesn’t work. Time for something else.

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Sam Bowman is an Associate at Fingleton Associates.