Election day polling by Michael Ashcroft showed a Britain divided not so much by class or region as age. The 45-54 age group split almost evenly between the two main parties. Older voters went for the Conservatives; younger ones for Labour. Among 18-24 year olds, only 18 per cent voted Tory, while 67 per cent supported Labour. Among 24-35 year olds, that first figure rose to only 22 per cent and the second dropped to only 58 per cent.
It is inevitable in the aftermath of these findings and June’s result that the Conservatives should mull younger voters’ embrace of Jeremy Corbyn; think that the latter have little grasp, because they have no memory, of why socialism doesn’t work; and conclude that Tories need not so much to ‘Change to Win’, as David Cameron once put it, as ‘Educate to Win’. The case for conservatism must be put to younger voters as it hasn’t been for the best part of 50 years.
An integral part of that case is the belief in a smaller state. Tories in modern times have consistently held that a big state, and one that seeks to impose equality of outcome, is dangerous not only to individual freedom but to social cohesion. A glance at the chaos in one of Corbyn’s favourite countries, Venezuela, should be enough to prove the point. Conservatives will always believe in a smaller state than socialists – or, as Theresa May once put it, think that the state should be “small, strong and strategic”.
It does not follow, however, that because we think the state should shrink that we believe it should all but vanish altogether. There are solid political as well as electoral reasons for rejecting the view that the nightwatchman state is enough, even before delving into the historical differences and linkages between conservatives and liberals. These might be summarised roughly as follows.
First, capitalism is not producing well-paid, secure, blue and white collar jobs in western Europe on the scale that it did even 25 years ago. Voters thus expect the state to step in: to help support lower paid workers through the Living Wage or tax credits; to improve schools, so that younger people are better prepared for work; to help ensure that there are houses in places where workers need them; to provide transport and digital infrastructure.
Second, changes in our lives at work mirror those at home. More people are coping on their own, as families change, with debt, or substance abuse problems, or the inability to read and write, or the lack of the ‘soft skills’ that underpin regular work. The traditional free market nostrums do little to help them. If a man has an alcohol problem, cutting taxes won’t help him. If he can’t read, nor will slashing red tape. If he lacks soft skills, privatisation won’t create a job that he can do.
Third, the state isn’t necessarily the provider who meets all these requirements. For example, there is a need, as people live longer, for new savings vehicles to supplement the state pension. But government must set the overall framework. And that state pension must be there in some form – at least, if a party is to win elections. The manifesto social care fiasco is testimony to what can happen when governments propose sudden change.
May put it baldly when she praised “the good that government can do”. Cameron’s vision of the Big Society, with its enhanced role for the independent sector, charities and voluntary groups, was closer to the mark. But it needs the state to still be there after it has stood back: to act, in that clunking but indispensable word, as an enabler – championing, regulating, setting a tax and legal framework, sometimes funding.
Finally, a plea to see ourselves as others see us. I’ve never heard anyone who wasn’t politically active talk of a small or big state. Most voters want government to be out of their hair yet there when they need it. They respect, even if they don’t always like, politicians who deliver stable economic management and a competitive tax framework – which in turn raises the revenue to fund higher spending on schools, hospitals and other public services. Which is what Margaret Thatcher, free market heroine, delivered in her time.