Young people beware! With the tightest election result anticipated for many decades come May, political parties are using increasingly desperate tactics to find votes, with bigger promises offered and little policy detail to back these promises up.
So who should young people vote for? As a non-party-political charitable think tank, the Intergenerational Foundation is unable to support any one party or set of parties. However, it is possible to analyse each party’s manifesto to see whether their major election promises are in the interests of younger and future generations.
LibDem plans to eradicate the structural deficit by 2017/18 should be in the interests of younger and future generations. Limiting departmental spending to 50 per cent means that the LibDems manifesto sits squarely between that of the Conservatives and Labour. Of course deficit reduction must be balanced so that all generations are treated fairly and the LibDems, in spite of their higher education U-turn post-2010, on the face of it, appear to be the most intergenerationally fair of all the parties. This is because they appear to be balancing the need to reduce borrowing for younger and future generations with spreading existing resources and benefits more fairly across the generations.
The LibDem family policy pledge goes further than either the Conservatives or Labour with a promise of 20 hours free childcare for all 2-4 year olds, the offer of free childcare for all working families and a “shared parental right to request flexible working”. Furthermore they offer a “use it or lose it” parental leave month. How this will fly with business is another matter but as a commitment to supporting parents with young children, the policy is a positive one.
The LibDems, like Labour and the Conservatives, are committed to protecting the education budget and have committed to protect it up to 19 years of age. But will this be in real terms? They also go further than either Labour or the Conservatives by offering free school meals for all primary school children. However there is no mention of reducing class sizes, nor any policy proposals for increasing the number of teachers.
A lack of movement on tuition fees undermines any other LibDem announcement regarding investing in young people. The LibDem U-turn on tuition fees post-2010 has not been forgotten by many young people currently shackled with average student debts of £42,000 on graduation. While higher education academic experts may exhort that 5.5% interest accruing on student loans while in higher education is a low rate of interest if compared to commercial rates of borrowing, the current rate is still tied to RPI during a period of negative interest rates. Furthermore, the repayment rate of 9% on income over £21,000 is still 9% of income that could have been saved to move out of the family home or to buy a first property. IF research reveals that a worker would need to be earning in excess of £50,000 a year before they can start to pay down the capital of these loans so many middle-income younger workers will be consigned to paying 9% of income for the next 30 years of their lives.
While the Conservatives pledge three million apprenticeships, the LibDems offer a more restrained two million, but alongside this they also promise the creation of 250,000 “green jobs”. There is no mention of how these jobs will be created or funded. They will “look at raising” the National Minimum Wage but this is a weak pledge when both Labour and the Conservatives have committed to a raise to £8 per hour. Again LibDem policy is weak on zero hours contracts citing “a formal right to request a fixed contract” while the Conservatives refer to a “ban” on exclusivity and Labour pledge to ban zero-hours contracts completely. The LibDems do better when they promise a “clamp down” on unpaid internships to combat businesses avoiding paying the National Minimum Wage while the Conservatives are silent and Labour uses the word “tackle”. No increase in National Insurance Contributions is to be welcomed but contributions start when a person over 16 years of age earns £8,060 so many younger, poorer workers will be caught when earning little.
The LibDem policy on housing is ambitious. A pledge to build 300,000 new homes each year, moves to ensure Local Authorities have a housing need strategy spanning 15 years and the creation of a Housing Investment Bank to stimulate new building and supply is all to be applauded. A Land Value Tax might also help younger generations by stimulating sales among brick-rich cash-poor older people. The LibDems also suggest a “high value housing levy” to redistribute unfairly gained housing wealth, the creation of new garden cities and moves to discourage second home ownership with a 200% council tax increase for such properties. However IF is sceptical about LibDem plans to persuade landlords to reduce rents in exchange for direct payment as well as moves to offer a 20% reduction on rent on affordable homes. For renters the LibDems also plan to ban unfair letting agents’ fees and introduce multi-year tenancies alongside Labour and the Green Party.
A promise by the LibDems to increase spending on the NHS by £8bn a year may be an unaffordable promise for younger generations. With NHS spending on retired households already double that for working populations, IF would query whether this increase in spending is intergenerationally fair when the costs of an increasingly ageing population are likely to fall ever more on over-burdened younger generations. A social care cap may also push costs onto the shoulders of young people and lead to an increase in intergenerational conflict. Young people may start to question why as they are forced to bring up their families in increasingly smaller homes while subsidising older, wealthy people to remain in larger and more valuable spaces and receive free social care.
Along with the Conservatives and Labour the LibDems have made a commitment to upgrade the nation’s railways, which includes support for High Speed Two. Again, IF would urge caution over how the cost is shared across the generations. Using too high a Discount Rate could impact future generations severely if economic growth does not deliver enough to erode the debt passed into the future. IF is pleased that LibDem policy opposes an expansion of South East airports due to the damage aviation travel does to the environment. IF also welcomes LibDem promises to introduce a Zero Carbon Britain Act by 2020 as well as the introduction of ultra-low emissions vehicles by 2040.
IF is disappointed by LibDem proposals for the “responsible extraction” of Shale Gas, but heartened by plans to encourage on-shore wind farms and encourage carbon reduction targets. However, LibDem support for the expansion of new nuclear energy flies in the face of any commitment to environmental or sustainable energy policy. The cost of nuclear waste storage and the de-commissioning of existing nuclear plants will place an unaffordable financial burden on future generations let alone the risk to the entire nation should there be catastrophic leaks in the future.
While a promise to prioritise investment in green industries is welcome, LibDem policies, like all other major political parties, are undermined by their energy policy.
Increasing the tax-free personal allowance to £12,500 will help younger, poorer workers as will the promise to freeze Income Tax, VAT or Corporation Tax. As the media and other think tanks, such as the IFS have pointed out, IF does not believe that any party will be able to keep this promise due to our already high national debt and deficit.
The LibDems appear to be the only party willing to address the intergenerational unfairness apparent in the benefits system. Their acknowledgement that older 40% taxpayers should not receive Winter Fuel Allowance is welcome, as are their plans to remove free TV Licences from older higher rate taxpayers. It is interesting that there is no mention of protecting or reforming free prescriptions. However, this could be interpreted as tokenistic with the LibDem pledge to continue to protect the Triple Lock on the State Pension. The State Pension liability is currently £3.8 trillion, which means that any older persons benefit reform pales into insignificance.
The offer to introduce a discount bus pass to 16-21 year olds appears to be an acknowledgement of the plight of young people and an attempt to balance the free bus passes of older people. The pledge for an “improved work programme” is meaningless until more information is given as to what the improvements would comprise.
IF welcomes the LibDem promise to reduce the voting age to 16 years of age however there is no mention of addressing the problem of individual voter registration which Labour have promised to reform.