It’s fantastic to be here in Leeds. I grew up here mainly in the 1990s, and it’s more trendy now than when I was here. It is also the most productive city in the north of England, and it was announced last week that we have seen a five per cent rise in new business start-ups – and many of them are taking place in Leeds. I think that’s a fantastic opportunity for us as Conservatives to win over a huge new generation of people.
I’m very excited to be speaking for 1828, as well as to Leeds University students, because I think they are a huge part of what’s happening on the right of politics, where a lot of new ideas are coming to fruition, along with other organisations in Westminster like the Centre for Policy Studies and Freer. After eight years in government, we need new initiatives like these coming through because that is the way we are going to win the next election.
I’m a great believer that we can’t just accept the political weather as it is now – we have to work to shape the political weather. The reason that Jeremy Corbyn has been successful, to some extent, is that he has been prepared to say what he thinks, year after year. This has clearly had a strong effect, and we need to be just as relentless in putting our messages across too.
Some people say that universities are left-wing places, that they have recently become so, that they’re full of safe spaces, and places where right-wingers can’t fit in. My dad is actually a lecturer here at Leeds University, for any of you who study maths. There’s a reason he’s not here today for a Conservative society talk…
It has always been the case that universities have been associated with left-wing thinking. In the 1990s, whenever ministers visited, they got pelted with eggs – I’m just relieved that there’s nobody with that kind of equipment in this room today. So, I think that we can really look at things differently now – let’s make universities somewhere that can foster economic liberalism, social liberalism, and right-of-centre thinking. The fact that so many of you have come here on a wet Friday afternoon shows that this is possible, and it is what we want to do.
And I think that the generation coming through now is particularly exciting. This is the first generation that has grown up almost entirely on the internet. When I was growing up, I remember going on the first website, and now these things are an unavoidable part of life. You’ve all got a new level of freedom: the freedom to be able to express yourselves, to support new ideas, to be able to travel and experience things, not to mention the ability to post whatever you see fit online.
That means that people understand that they have the ability to shape and control their own lives, much more than they ever did before. To me, that fits very closely with what the Conservative party’s philosophy is about – people should be free to control their own lives and not be victims of the system.
If you look at the opinion polling for the younger generations, they are less likely to want higher taxes than older generations. They are more likely to start up businesses, and more likely to cite making money as a motivating factor for that. They believe in the concept of personal responsibility. You have a generation that fundamentally believes in economic and personal freedom – that should be the ideal target audience for the Conservatives.
In fact, since 2015, there has been an 85 per cent rise in the number of businesses set up by 18-24-year-olds. That is twice the level of businesses set up by the same age group in France and Germany. So, it’s not just this generation, it’s this generation here in Britain that is unique and special, and I think that’s really exciting.
Over the past few years, we’ve constantly heard the myths in the media that members of this generation are, in fact, Corbynistas, that they all want to live in a commune, go on protest marches, overthrow capitalism, and that they’re not really minded to support the Conservative party. But it’s very interesting that, since then, we have actually seen support for Corbyn drop. There has been a 12 point drop in support for Corbyn among Generation Z.
Indeed, Labour’s Olivia Bailey admitted at a conference last weekend that young voters are also the least loyal to the party. She also admitted that none of those voters could remember a single Labour policy from their 2017 manifesto. The quote reads: “None of them could remember any of their policies from the last manifesto. The main motivation for their choice in voting Labour was emotional and cultural.”
So, fundamentally, they don’t actually believe in the various bribes that have been put forward by the promise of things like tuition fees or bus fares. They’re not believers in nationalisation, fundamentally. They’re not believers in a big state or more state control.
I think that gives us a massive opportunity. It’s not our policies that we have to change – although I think there are certain things we have to do – but our attitude. We have to change to reach out to this new generation, and the people in this room are the people who are best placed to do that. I will be very interested after this talk to hear your ideas of what you think will cut through. What should we be doing differently as Conservatives to reach across and get these people on board?
I have three main thoughts about what we can change. First of all, I think we need to be much tougher with the vested interests that are holding back people succeeding. Secondly, I think we’ve got to be champions of modern life and freedom. And thirdly, we’ve got to be clear that the future can be better than the past, and that there are benefits brought by Brexit for that generation. I don’t think we can ignore that.
Let me start with vested interests. I think the biggest one is housing. It is still so expensive to buy houses, and I’m not just talking about London and the South East. I was in Tadcaster this morning meeting a group of workers, and they told me that they were struggling to afford houses there. This is a nationwide problem, which is fundamentally a problem because we have a planning system that was invented in 1947 and is very top down. It doesn’t allow enough houses to be built – we’ve built far fewer houses than Germany or France over the past 20 years. We restrict supply, demand goes up, and the price goes up.
I am always puzzled by the number of people who say: “my children can’t afford to buy a house.” I then ask whether they would be prepared to allow houses to be built on a site next to their house? They say no. So, there is an inherent contradiction among people who say they don’t want new buildings, while also complaining that it is totally unaffordable for the next generation.
For me, it’s not just the injustice of the fact that many young people can’t afford housing, it is also the cost to the economy. We know that there has been a 25 per cent drop in the number of people moving for work over the last 15 years, and these are people who could be in better jobs. If we don’t address that, I think there are far worse socialist solutions that are going to be put in place.
What I ask people who don’t want houses built next to them is whether they would rather have their house heavily taxed or appropriated by a Jeremy Corbyn-style government, or whether they would rather support planning reform? I think that often helps people to change their minds.
So, what can we do?
In Germany, they have a system where individuals are able to build in residential areas without the restriction of planning permission. You can just go and build a house. It takes much less time to get new houses up. In Tokyo, they have a system where if you want to change your house, provided you don’t affect your neighbour’s light, you can go ahead and do so. In these two cases, cities can get bigger, faster. They can build, they can change, and they can evolve.
The issue with central planning is the idea that some central authority can make decisions for you as an individual. Indeed, that is the fundamental problem with socialism in general.
The second vested interest that needs to be dealt with is utilities. If you look at the cost of energy, broadband, and supplying energy, there simply isn’t enough competition in the market. We need to make it easier for new firms to enter those markets.
In Britain, we are now in a position where we are being overtaken by countries like Spain in terms of fibre broadband, and these are some of the critical issues for the future of our economy. The largenumber of people aged between 18-24 starting up businesses, whom I discussed earlier, need these sort of things to help them do so.
Moving to railways. Again, we have a very fragmented rail service. The irony of the whole nationalisation debate is that a large part of it is already nationalised. It’s also the fact that you’ve got separate companies supplying the train and the tracks, so there’s not proper accountability in the system. If you delve into the reasons of why people don’t support the current system, it’s not because they think that the prices are too high or the service isn’t good enough, but the lack of accountability.
I would like to see us move towards a Japanese system, where you have an integrated track and train, and you have control of the land locally. You have proper accountability and let the private sector run the service, which costs the government less. I know you, in this audience, probably don’t remember British rail, but it was no picnic – and the sandwiches were pretty dodgy.
We must also resist the efforts to protect certain industries. Every government is always under pressure to protect jobs. I understand that – we don’t want to be in a position where we see people out of work. However, there is always a temptation to protect what we’ve got at the moment, rather than allow new entrants and new industries. We need much more rigorous competition. We need to make sure we reduce the amount of regulation that stops new companies from entering markets.
In terms of my job as chief secretary, I manage public spending – £800bn a year. Inevitably, a lot of public spending ends up on the legacy of what happened before, rather than looking forward to the future. Public spending on fibre – which we will need to do in rural areas, for example – is going to be an investment for the future. There are other parts of the public sector where we have given money in the past and it is now hard to take that away. I think we need to really look hard at those types of expenditure because, ultimately, it is the younger generation who are going to bear the burden of this spending.
We know that the tax burden has already been increasing over the past 40 years. We spend 39 per cent of all of our money in this country on the government. Fundamentally, we need a state that does things well but doesn’t take too much money in the form of taxes. So, a state that does less, better. Because, ultimately, your own money is your ability to control your own life. It is your personal freedom to take control of your future and make your own decisions.
The next thing we need to do as a government is to convey the idea of lifestyle freedom. This generation that has benefitted from the gig economy, whether its Airbnb, Uber, or any of those new opportunities, is the freest. You have Spotify – you don’t have to go to Virgin records to buy an LP. You’ve got the opportunity to listen to things whenever you want and however you want. You’ve got the opportunity to do things in a very different way. And I do think that there are threats from people who want to change the nature of the internet – Jeremy Corbyn, for example, has come up with some very worrying policies in this area.
There’s also the more broad lifestyle freedoms of being able to express yourself and say what you believe. I am worried about the offence industry developing here in the UK, where just offending somebody is something that you aren’t able to do anymore. The ability to debate, speak freely, and be offensive is what helps to change society. If we need to be worried about what we say, then we have a society with too much control.
I think the ability to control what you eat and drink is also very important. Of course, we need to educate those who are growing up, but I worry about over-regulation. For example, in Scotland, we have a new minimum alcohol price – which helps the off-license in Carlisle.
But is it right that those on the lowest incomes are having to spend more on something that they rely on to enjoy life? I think that the Conservative party has to oppose the po-faced moralisers on the left who want to control people’s lives.
The final thing I want to say is that we need to be really optimistic about the future, and believe that it can be better than the past. That’s what I talk about: a free, open, modern, forward-thinking country – looking like you love modern Britain as it is, not wanting to hark back to the past or protect ourselves from the future. And Brexit gives us the ability to shape our own future. We will have more control over our laws, regulations, and taxation. We can use that freedom for good or for ill.
One of the reasons that Jeremy Corbyn is not objecting to Brexit so much is the fact that he likes how he would be able to flout state aid rules and spend huge amounts of taxpayers’ money without EU restriction. Likewise, I think Brexit gives a big opportunity to the next generation who want to do things differently. It gives us more opportunities to shape our own future – for example, with the development of technology or the chance to reform taxation. All of these things can be in our control.
I worry about those protectionist instincts that I’ve discussed today – the people who want to protect things the way they are now, the industry the way it is now, planning laws and housing the way they are now. I worry about their influence in the debate. What I want to see is more people like you in this room being able to shape the future in the way you see fit, in a way that opens up more opportunities and gets rid of some of those vested interests that ultimately want to stop progress.
I am, personally, extremely bored of talking about the Brexit process. Brexit can have a great legacy, but I think we need more debate about what the future looks like after Brexit. We need to be talking about a positive, freedom-oriented way, rather than trying to protect Britain against the rest of the world – I don’t think that will make us successful.