Even before Theresa May’s ill-fated speech yesterday, this year’s Conservative Party conference had something of a funereal feel, especially in comparison to the freshers’ week atmosphere of Labour conference last week. Indeed, the prevailing mood in Manchester this week was one of lament – for the loss of MPs in the last election, but also for the lack of a clear vision on how to win back those voters it failed to engage with at the polls in June.
It’s clear from post-election analysis that the Conservatives lost ground in two key demographics in particular: young people, with around 60 per cent of 18-24 years old voting for Labour; and people living in major cities – with the Tories seeing their biggest vote decreases in London constituencies, and Labour consolidating its power in major cities across England and Wales.
And it’s equally clear that the Conservatives were explicitly trying to make themselves relevant to these groups this week by addressing some of the most pressing issues they face, from stagnant wages to unaffordable housing and student debt. That was reflected in the announcements on extending the help-to-buy scheme, building more social housing, and the changes to tuition fees. The Government also attempted to fend off Jeremy Corbyn’s critique of capitalism by repeatedly making the case for free markets and free trade as the best way of generating prosperity for the greatest number of people.
Ultimately, however, the Government failed to set out a policy platform that really gets to grip with the issues facing young and urban voters, or a compelling vision for the future of urban Britain.
Take its announcements on housing, for example. The most pressing challenge in cities like Bristol, Brighton and Cambridge (where house prices are more than ten times the average wage) is that nowhere near enough new homes are being built to meet demand. Pledging another £10bn for the ‘Help-to-Buy’ scheme will do nothing to address this fundamental problem in the housing market, and will actually increase demand for existing housing stock, especially in already very expensive cities. Moreover, the announcement that the Government will build 25,000 new social housing properties over the next five years is unlikely to have much traction with young and urban voters when Labour has already promised to build 100,000 affordable homes in its first term. If the Conservatives really want to prioritise young city-living buyers over older people who already own properties, then they should make more land available for housing on green belt sites, and introduce land value capture policies.
This is also true of the Government’s announcement on tuition fees, which will see the income threshold at which point graduates repay student loans raised from £21,000 to £25,000. While it didn’t get much attention in the press, this is a significant policy change which the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests could save students around £15,700 on average. However, with Labour promising to scrap tuition fees entirely, it’s hard to see what political gains the Conservatives will get from these plans.
Furthermore, by focusing almost entirely on higher education, the Conservatives overlooked more important challenges in the education and skills sector, such as the need to significantly improve the Further Education (FE) system. In cities such as Birmingham, Bradford, Luton and Stoke more than 14 per cent of the adult population have no formal qualifications. The tuition fee debates are largely irrelevant for them, but how we support these individuals to access skills and education opportunities barely warranted a mention from politicians in Manchester.
Beyond specific policies, the Conservatives offered little indication of having a big vision for the future of urban Britain, or for how it would build on the city devolution agenda championed by the Government in recent years. For example, it could have used the conference to go further than the Cameron/Osborne administration in devolving more powers to the English city regions – such as control over taxes, the capacity to set city specific minimum wages, or stronger powers over compulsory purchase orders to free up land for house-building. But there was barely a single reference to devolution in speeches by Cabinet ministers throughout the week. In 1997, a new Labour Government demonstrated that it was possible to be both bold and authoritative by giving power away, which it did through offering devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and by introducing London’s mayoralty. This is the kind of vision and boldness that the Conservatives need to develop and implement to make them relevant again to urban Britain at the next election.
Part of this approach to reconnecting to urban Britain means making the most of the new metro mayors (both Labour and Conservatives). True, the Conservative mayors were granted a slot in the main conference hall, in contrast to Labour’s approach to its mayors the previous week. But as discussions at the Centre for Cities’ fringe event with these mayors demonstrated, there is a disconnect between them and national government when it comes to tackling the issues facing the communities they represent.
For example, Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands, criticised the Department for Education for failing to adequately engage with the mayors on FE policy – citing the delay in devolving the city region’s Adult Education budget to the mayor as one example. Similarly, when I put it to Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley mayor, that the Conservative (and Labour) Party face a big challenge in connecting with local communities in his area, he suggested that some of the intellectual debates which the party leadership had indulged in during conference meant little to the “person on the street”. Instead, he stressed the need for the party to highlight its record on delivering for people and places, and to show voters the difference it can make for them.
Only a few months ago, I suggested that the Conservatives had an opportunity to make unprecedented inroads into Labour’s electoral dominance of urban Britain. But they have failed to come up with the ideas and vision needed to grasp this opportunity – and risk squandering the progress being made by the new metro mayors and Conservative city leaders in delivering for urban communities. It’s never too late to address these issues, but the clock is ticking for the Conservatives to do so.
Image by: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency – original photo