Young let down by Starmer and Sunak?

This week the leaders of the UK’s two biggest political parties, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, laid out their visions for the country. Liz Emerson, IF Co-founder, uses the lens of intergenerational fairness to assess their proposals on the key issues that most affect younger and future generations


It’s all about housing stupid: the lack of it; the price of it; and the location of it. Yet, the defining issue that most concerns young adults was little mentioned by either leader. In fact, neither Starmer nor Sunak mentioned how they would tackle the housing crisis, which is the most visible form of intergenerational unfairness in the UK today. That fact is even all the more ironic with the release of Census data just this week revealing that the number of households renting has doubled since 2001.

Starmer may have promised to “trust communities with power to control their destiny”, but handing power to local communities is not a new idea, and its introduction has not really delivered local democracy fairly across the generations. “Localism”, which was unveiled by the coalition government back in 2010, has in too many cases, merely handed power to local grey elites of house-blocking, progress-stalling NIMBYs. What younger generations want to hear is that governments are going to bring in policies that reduce the cost of housing across all tenures. That means building up and out, increasing density, and discouraging housing as a form of investment. What younger generations do not need are government interventions which help builders but drive up prices, such as Help-To-Buy.

Student debt

Neither leader acknowledged the very real financial crisis facing the 50% of young people who go on to higher education. Student maintenance loans, which nearly all students rely on, have not been uprated by inflation. Students have the same housing, food and energy bills as the rest of us, but have been left behind amid the COVID-19, cost-of-living and energy crises fuelling sky-high inflation. Furthermore, many parents misunderstand the 2012 coalition changes to student maintenance loans, the means-testing of which is based on the principle of an expectation that parents contribute to their children’s living costs. But parents are also struggling with higher mortgage interest rates, the cost-of-living and energy crises, so the Bank of Mum and Dad cannot necessarily come to the rescue. Our latest What IF? podcast tells the stories of the financial choices current students are having to make.

Conservative policy appears to rest on making more graduates pay back their student debts for longer. It means that, from 2023/24, new students will have another decade of repayment added to their student loan terms and therefore be in their early 60s before they escape the system. Universities UK is also pushing for inflation-busting increases in student fees to £13,000 or more a year.

What of Labour’s previous manifesto pledges to scrap tuition fees? When challenged, Starmer acknowledged that tuition fees “burden young people”, but he would not be drawn into any discussion on the removal of tuition fees.

IF believes that higher education is a public good that enriches society as a whole with its cost funded by the general taxpayer. After all, we already have a progressive tax system in which the more you earn, the more you pay. Higher-earning graduates therefore already pay more in taxation. Student loan repayment is a form of double taxation, with current graduates earning around the average annual wage currently facing 41% marginal tax rates for 30 years – 9% “graduate tax”, 12% national insurance and 20% income tax. For future students that will be 40 years. Whichever political party comes to their rescue, they will likely attract younger votes.

The environment

The five pledges outlined by Sunak – to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce the National Debt, address NHS waiting lists, and stop illegal immigration – missed the biggest threat facing younger and future generations – environmental crises and climate breakdown. Starmer, on the other hand, put a “green economy” at the heart of his speech.

While Conservative Party infighting continues over on-shore and off-shore wind, the reopening of coal mines, and fracking, Labour announced a commitment to wind, solar, carbon capture, and sadly, nuclear energy.

There are obvious intergenerational justice implications in how the country moves to a zero carbon future. Previous IF research has raised the issue of the toxic time capsule of radioactive waste that comes from including nuclear in our energy mix. We have also raised our concerns over the eye-watering cost to younger and future taxpayers from strike price agreements made for nuclear just as the cost of renewable energy, such as solar, is falling. We’ve called on the government to follow the French example of banning domestic flights where a comparable train journey is available. We can get people out of planes and onto trains but only if the political will is there.

If only both party leaders were more environmentally ambitious, IF would be more supportive of their claims of providing “a better future for our children and grandchildren” or providing “100% clean power generation by 2030.”