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The Tories hate young people. And they have for the last 14 years.

Calls for a national service programme may win the Conservatives a handful of votes in July – at the cost of alienating an entire generation in the years to come.

May 28 2024, 15.26pm

Coming to terms with inevitable electoral loss, the Conservative party is refocused on damage limitation. The right-wing challenger party, Reform UK, threatens to split what is left of the Tory vote and reduce their losses to historic levels. Now, the Tories are campaigning to retain those target voters – most of whom are older and more right-wing. As such, a two-pronged attack is forming: the first on immigration, the second on the young.

Over the weekend, Rishi Sunak announced the Conservative’s flagship plans to introduce compulsory national service for 18-year-olds, claiming the programme would give young people “real world skills” and “contribute to their community and our country”. Other MPs have been less diplomatic. “Heaven forbid young people are made to do something,” former defence secretary and Tory grandee Ben Wallace posted on social media about the policy. 

If that wasn’t enough to enrage younger voters (many of whom feel bruised by the suggestion that the youth of today could benefit from a bit of civic duty, after spending 18 months indoors to protect the elderly during the Covid-19 pandemic), the Tories have today announced plans to raise the tax-free pension allowance via a “Triple Lock Plus” if they win the general election.

Under the proposals, the personal allowance for pensioners will increase by at least 2.5 per cent or be in line with the highest of earnings or inflation. Sunak said the scheme - set to cost around £2.5bn - shows the Tories are “on the side of pensioners”. The decision to make this a policy priority, as opposed to fixing decimated youth services, an extortionate rental market, decaying schools and a crisis in higher education, has made another message clear: the Tories are certainly not on the side of youngsters. 

Whilst Labour has pledged to extend the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds and put social mobility - starting with early years - at the heart of its campaign, the Conservatives have offered little more than punitive policies for the young: mandatory math lessons and community service, threats to take away their smartphones and cigarettes. 

The party’s track record is not much better. Since 2010, every region in England has seen funding for youth services cut by more than 60 per cent. This has disproportionately impacted the North: some of the most severely affected areas have seen cuts of up to 80 per cent. Along with decaying school buildings and a teacher shortage, three-quarters of schools in England have faced real-term cuts since 2010 due to government funding decisions, and funding for 16-19 education has been cut by 15 per cent

For young adults, the picture is just as bleak. Tuition fees tripled under the 2010 coalition government, and sky-high interest rates on tuition fee loan repayments have saddled graduates with a lifetime of debt ranging into the hundreds of thousands. 

The Tory government’s hard departure from the EU locked young people out of opportunities open to prior generations. UK students were stripped of the chance to partake in the Erasmus scheme and study abroad in Europe for a set part of their degree. Just recently, the government rejected an EU offer that would make it easier for people aged between 18 and 30 to study and work abroad in the wake of Brexit, plainly stating: “Free movement within the EU was ended”.

Prospects for young people entering the job market are no better. Stagnant wages and cost of living increases have rendered graduate and entry-level salaries pitiful, especially in the capital. The extortionate rental market, which sees more than 40 per cent of young renters paying over a third of their salaries on their housing, has depleted any savings young people may have, locking them out of the rental market and removing their freedom to change careers or move house. Watching on, the government has virtually ignored the disproportionate impact of the housing crisis on young people, kicking the renters reform bill into the long grass, held hostage to the influential landlord lobby within the Tory party. 

The Conservative party’s prioritisation of pensioners over the younger generation highlights a profound disconnect. While policies like compulsory national service and pension boosts may resonate with older demographics, they serve as a harsh reminder of the neglect, disconnection, and demonisation facing Britain's youth, all of which are products of the Tories' own policies. This strategy, while it may secure a few votes in the short term, threatens to deepen existing generational divisions. The youth, faced with this reality, may find it hard to forgive the Conservatives. And in all honesty, who could blame them?

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