2017 Budget: fresh policies and rebuilding trust

Philip Hammond has made a big play for the Millennial vote in last week’s budget. By making two headline commitments aimed at young adults, the chancellor has given Conservative MPs and activists the first decently good news to go knocking on doors with.

The generational divide in this year’s general election is well established, so it isn’t necessary to go over it again in much detail.  Nevertheless, a stamp duty freeze for first time buyers and a ‘Millennial railcard’ should be perfectly targeted at the group the Conservatives lost last time round. Not just that alien group known as Britain’s “youth”, but specifically the successful young professionals in Britain’s university cities. It wasn’t those brought up on council estates that turned against the Tories in the biggest numbers, it was the aspirant urban dwellers, with good jobs and prospects, whose disposable income and wealth simply does not match their earning potential. The 10% swing towards Labour amongst the cosmopolitan young, recorded in our on the day poll, speaks volumes.

There are good reasons why this budget should be a fresh start for the Conservatives. For one, it hasn’t unraveled. Not uncommon in recent years. It is also the first major political set piece event that hasn’t been about Brexit and it has produced headlines that should at least resonate with young professionals. With that being the case, the chancellor has also done enough of the political work to ensure that the Brexiteers behind him on the Commons’ benches are pleased. All in all, this is the best outcome Philip Hammond, and everyone in the government, could have hoped for.

To work the Tories need to drape themselves in these policies

Will the budget do the electoral work that the Tories hope it will is the bigger question. It definitely is a good start. Young voters, especially young professionals, were the most likely to say they vote based on what directly affects their own interests. Put very crudely, it could be said that buying votes works best with the young.

In line with this, it is important for the Conservatives that they develop some sort of coherent message for them. The Conservative general election campaign led heavy on Brexit, and their policy announcements had little to recommend themselves to the young. Labour did well amongst young professionals not because Jeremy Corbyn won them over with his rhetoric or they suddenly became socialists, but because the government left a policy vacuum for the opposition to fill, and this group will make a decision on who to vote for based on totting up policies on paper.

The danger is the message not getting through, which might happen if the Conservatives don’t drape themselves in these policies. Help to Buy just doesn’t quite work for selling this government’s credentials on housing because it is quite clearly not the brainchild of this chancellor. But if Hammond and May do not communicate clearly that this is their initiative they might not gain any votes from it.

This won’t be like the council house revolution

Similarly, neither measure could have the impact that the government imagines. The numbers at face value look impressive. There are approximately 300,000 first time buyer mortgages taken out per year. Many of these would be to couples, meaning up to two million people could benefit from this policy during the parliament. Yes, the big impact will be in London and the South East, where many thousands of pounds could be saved. But for those in the North East, the average first time buyer purchase price means they would only save £40 – not exactly a life changing sum. The Tories are constantly looking for the 21st century equivalent of Thatcher’s council house revolution, and a saving of a couple of thousands of pounds, although welcome, might not have the same impact as the 1980s policy of giving away houses at knockdown prices.

The ‘Millennial railcard’ has a similar issue. Almost a third off of rail travel would most definitely be appreciated. But this saving, if along the lines of the 16-25 railcard, cannot be used at peak times, meaning it has no effect on commuting costs. 

Perhaps the biggest role these policies could play is allowing the Conservatives to rebuild bridges with these voters. Young professionals who voted Labour in June did so because they thought the party had the best policies (63%) and the party had their trust (45%). Amongst the minority of young professional voters who opted for the Tories, only a third (33%) gave these as reasons for their choice. It’s lack of policies and lack of trust that the party needs to tackle. This budget should be the starting point for this.

We probably won’t see millions becoming indebted to the Tories in the same way council house sales managed, but it is finally something they can talk to younger voters about other than doing Brexit better than someone else. It’s the start of a rebuilding process.