Intergenerational fairness: the key to the 2017 election?

polling station sign and Union Jack flag – UK prepares for elections

David Kingman looks at what the UK’s major political parties have had to say about intergenerational fairness in their manifestos

With barely two full weeks of campaigning still to unfold before Britain goes to the polls for the snap general election on 8 June, the major parties have now all launched their hastily-written manifestos. What makes them very interesting from IF’s point of view is that they all give the issue of fairness between the generations far greater prominence than it has enjoyed at any previous election, yet they all have something distinct to say on the subject. For all that commentators have attempted to label this year’s vote the “Brexit election”, could the (related) issue of intergenerational fairness also help to define it?

The Conservatives: all change?

Perhaps the most surprising set of policies which has been put forward by any of the major parties comes from the Conservatives, who – despite being the party which has received the largest share of the “grey vote” at recent elections – have abandoned their long-standing commitment to universal pensioner benefits. The Conservative Party manifesto, Forward Together: Our plan for a stronger Britain and a prosperous future, makes two pledges that would have been almost unthinkable under Theresa May’s predecessor as Prime Minister, David Cameron: the “triple lock” that was introduced by the 2010–15 Coalition government – under which the basic state pension always rose by whichever was highest out of wage growth, inflation or 2.5% – is set to be replaced with a “double-lock” consisting of only the first two; and, of equal significance, the Conservatives have also pledged to means-test universal Winter Fuel Payments, taking away the annual £200 (or £300 for the over-80s) from the wealthiest pensioners. This represents a remarkable volte-face on the party’s part since the last election just two years ago, when it campaigned on an explicit pledge that all pensioner benefits would be protected.

The Conservative policy which seems to be proving most controversial is the pledge to change the way adult social care is funded in England. The party has responded to the looming financial crisis within the social care sector by announcing that the money which is saved from means-testing Winter Fuel Payments will be used to increase funding for social care services, while also making two significant tweaks to the current social care funding system: adding the value of someone’s home to the calculation of their total assets in determining whether they should receive state help with home care costs or not (as is already done for care delivered in care homes), and increasing the threshold of asset wealth below which the state will step in to provide assistance. This is an extremely complicated policy area, but in a nutshell it means that fewer old people who are wealthy enough to own their own homes will receive state support with the cost of care, and in principle more of them may end up selling their homes (or borrowing against their value) to fund it. (There are only three local authorities in the country where the average property price is below the £100,000 threshold.)

A radical manifesto?

Whether the Tories are really committed to the cause of intergenerational fairness is an open question: during the campaign, Theresa May herself has been quick to rule out granting the vote at 16, and portrayed delivering Brexit as the best thing her party would do for young voters (even though the vast majority of them voted against it). Also open to doubt is whether the remedies they’ve put forward to curb the spiralling costs of pensions and the crisis in social care are likely to work. However, the idea that such policies could appear in a Conservative manifesto would have been inconceivable until very recently, so it goes to show how far intergenerational issues have become a major concern to those in power.

Labour: defending the welfare state?

As has been widely discussed throughout the campaign, Labour – under its radically left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, who polls suggest is by far Britain’s most popular politician among younger voters – has put forward a manifesto (For the many, not the few) which proposes a radically different vision of the future than that being offered by their rivals. This includes the proposal to completely abolish tuition fees at English universities (which can currently charge students up to £9,000 per year) and reintroduce maintenance grants, bans on unpaid internships and zero-hours contracts (both of which are disproportionately used by young people), reinstating housing benefit for under-21s and enabling the public sector to build large amounts of new housing – proposals that would all do something to address problems that face today’s young people.

However, one of the most unusual features of the 2017 election debate is that Labour has positioned itself as the defender of pensioners by opposing all of the Conservatives’ plans to curb spending on pensioner benefits. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has even accused the Conservatives of launching “an all-out attack on pensioners”; whilst this fits in with Labour’s broader political narrative of providing a universal safety net for all, it does seem odd for the socialists to be the ones defending some of the welfare state’s most regressive features.

Lib Dems: a second chance on Brexit?

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats – who are looking to bounce back after their disastrous set of results two years ago, which left the party with just eight seats – have made turning the election into a second referendum on Brexit the main focus of their manifesto, Change Britain’s Future. Their pledge to hold a second vote before Britain could formally leave the EU is a policy which seems designed to appeal to younger voters, given that the vast majority of them voted against Brexit. They are also in favour of lowering the voting age to 16 in all future elections and reinstating university maintenance grants for poorer pupils, but like Labour they want to defend the triple lock and have said they would solve the funding crisis in health and social care with a 1% rise in income tax that would hit working-age people.

In the round, these brief summaries of the three main parties’ manifesto pledges reveal two interesting conclusions. Firstly, whatever other complaints they may have with the way they are governed, British voters cannot claim they haven’t been offered a real choice at this general election. Not only on Brexit but also on fundamental questions to do with the running of the economy, education and the welfare state, the three biggest parties are further apart from each other that they have been at any time probably since the early 1980s. Secondly, although all of the manifestos contain a range of ideas that would address young peoples’ problems in different ways, the extent to which the Conservatives have adopted a range of previously unthinkable ideas is particularly striking.

Voters may not have expected or wanted the chance to vote on 8 June, but at least they can’t accuse the parties of being indistinguishable from each other on the issues that matter.