In a move as unedifying as a lecture on housing from Natalie Bennett, the Labour Party is today expected to pledge to cut university tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year by tightening up on pension tax reliefs. It’s a canny, if predictable, move. Tuition fees, the scrapping of which was the great yoof-hugging pledge of the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 campaign, have become, for many, an explanation for young people’s disengagement from party politics. The Tory-led hike in tuition fees, which coalition partners the Lib Dems did little to stop, is often held up as the sole reason young people are estranged from and disillusioned with the Westminster process. Abandoned by one party, and then shafted by the other, young people, we’re told, have political trust issues that only targeted pledges like this will overcome.
Labour leader Ed Miliband, who is due to make the announcement in a speech in Leeds today, seems primed to exploit this put-upon-youth narrative: ‘What has happened over the past five years is more than just a betrayal of election promises, it is a betrayal of an entire generation: a betrayal from their first steps to the time when they stride into the world of work; a betrayal from nursery to school, from college to university, a betrayal on the jobs or homes they hope to have afterwards – and even on their ability to vote.’
This is divisive electioneering at its most bald, in a battle that is increasingly being drawn along generational lines. The Tories have firmly hitched their wagon to the so-called grey vote, pledging to maintain the ‘triple-lock’ on state-pension growth and the ringfencing of old-age benefits – the winter-fuel allowance, free bus passes, free TV licenses. This, combined with chancellor George Osborne’s commitment to cutting housing benefits to the under-25s, and the Lib Dems’ drain-circling irrelevancy as this government draws to a close, has left Britain’s youth as an untapped electoral resource.
A YouGov poll last year revealed that as little as 41 per cent of 17- to 21-year-olds (first-time voters) planned to vote in this election. And while life expectancies continue to grow and the force of the over-65s vote is fortified, statistics suggest that the young could cause a real upset if they could only be cajoled into turning up at the ballot box. As Polly Toynbee put it, ‘If they turn out, young voters can get Cameron out’ – an assertion borne out by statistics which show that, of the young people who plan to vote, over 40 per cent intend to vote Labour. Along with Miliband’s pledge for votes for 16-year-olds, his selfie-snapping tours around colleges and youth media, and his cringeworthy youth manifesto, it is clear that Labour is hoping to ride the disaffected young all the way to No10.
But there’s more to this than stat-weighing cynicism. Miliband, alongside the fresh-faced voters who will welcome today’s announcement, is responding to a broader political atmosphere in which generations are being pitted against one other. Since the onset of the recession, generational conflict has been ruthlessly inflamed by leftish commentators. Talk of a ‘jilted generation’, undone by the spendthrift ways of their shortsighted Baby Boomer forbears, has helped cast Britain’s youth as the pitiable victims of economic circumstance.