Sunak’s Policy Offerings Target Older Voters But Make No Difference

June 5, 2024
R&WS Research Team
Conservative Party | GB Politics | Labour Party | Rishi Sunak | UK General Election 2024 | UK Politics | Young People | Youth

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Since Rishi Sunak emerged into a rain-lashed Downing Street to announce the date of the General Election, the Conservatives have made two major policy announcements.

First, the Prime Minister has promised that a Conservative Government will re-introduce national service for 18-year-olds. Rather than necessarily meaning that all 18-year-olds would be conscripted into the Armed Forces—as more than two million men were under the original scheme between 1947 and 1963—the new scheme would involve some young Britons doing military service for a year, while most would complete their national service by doing voluntary or charitable work at the weekends.

Second, Sunak unveiled a commitment to raise the personal allowance at which pensioners will start to pay income tax on their pension (currently £12,570) in line with either average earnings, inflation, or by 2.5% a year, whichever is higher, from next April (dubbed ‘Triple Lock Plus’).

Last week, Redfield & Wilton Strategies, in partnership with Politico Playbook, polled 1,500 Britons to find out what they thought of these two announcements,  

Firstly, regarding Sunak’s plan to re-introduce national service, voters are evenly split, with a narrow plurality of 39% saying they oppose the plan, against 37% who support it.

A majority of those aged 18-24 (51%), and pluralities of those aged 25-34 (39%), 35-44 (40%), and 45-54 (38%) oppose the re-introduction of national service.

However, pluralities of those aged 55-64 (41%) and 65+ (40%) support the policy, albeit by narrow margins.

When asked whether the principle of a scheme which would require British citizens at the age of 18 to enlist in military, government, public or civic service is a good idea or a bad idea, the same divide between the age cohorts is evident.

A narrow plurality of the population as a whole (38%) think that, in principle, such a scheme of national service is a bad idea, against 36% who think it is a good idea.

A majority of those aged 18-24 (61%), and pluralities of those aged 25-34 (36%) and 35-44 (40%) think such a scheme is, in principle, a bad idea, while those aged 45-54 are evenly split between those who think it is a good idea and those who think it is a bad idea (36% each). 

Once again, the two oldest age cohorts are more favourable, with pluralities of those aged 55-64 (45%) and over 65 (42%) responding that they think the principle of such a scheme is a good idea.  

For the Conservative Party and Rishi Sunak, voters’ impressions of the scheme are less important than whether it has convinced any more voters to vote Conservative on 4 July.

On that front, the evidence of our poll is not good for the Prime Minister.

While a plurality of voters (44%) say Sunak’s plan to re-introduce national service has not affected how they would vote, more voters say they are now less likely to vote Conservative as a result of the scheme (28%) than say they are more likely to do so (19%).

Worse, in both of the two oldest age brackets—amongst whom support for the scheme is highest—more voters say they are now less likely to vote Conservative (21% each) than say they are more likely to do so (18% and 17%).

When it comes to the planned increase of the personal tax-free allowance for pensioners, the polling is more positive for the Prime Minister.

49% support the proposal to increase the tax-free threshold on pensioners’ pension income, against only 17% who oppose it.

Majorities of those aged 55-64 (62%) and 65+ (58%) support the announcement, as do pluralities among every other age group.

As for whether Sunak’s proposed increase in the tax-free threshold is affordable or not, voters are split.

36% deem the proposal affordable, 34% say it is unaffordable, and 29% don’t know.

A plurality of those aged 18-24 (43%) think the proposal is unaffordable, while pluralities of those aged 55-64 (43%) and 65+ (40%) think it is affordable.

When asked if the proposed changes to pensions make them any more likely to vote Conservative at the election on 4 July, 49% of Britons say the way they would vote has been unaffected, 21% say they are now more likely to vote Conservative, and 19% say they are now less likely to vote Conservative.

Among the two oldest age groups, more voters aged 55-64 (20%) and 65+ (25%) say they are now more likely to vote Conservative than say they are now less likely to do so (6% and 15%, respectively).

However, among 18-24 year olds, a plurality of 37% say they are now less likely to vote Conservative while 20% say they are more likely to do so.

The two separate policy announcements from the Conservatives can only be understood in the context of a Conservative campaign that is squarely focused on improving the party’s dire standing with older voters.

Both of our first two national voting intention polls of the election—the first released last Tuesday and the second on Monday—show that less than a quarter of voters over 65 now intend to vote Conservative, with Labour’s lead among this cohort actually widening from 7% to 13% in the first week of the campaign. 

For context, in 2019, it is estimated that more than 60% of this age cohort voted Conservative.

In other words, despite voters aged over 65 being broadly in favour of the re-introduction of national service and increasing the personal allowance on pension pots, the Conservatives have actually fallen a further 6% behind Labour with this target age group since both policies were announced.

Worse still, only 28% of those aged over 65 choose the Conservatives when asked which of the two main parties ‘Supports Pensioners,’ against 27% who choose Labour.

Why have neither of these policy offerings, tailored specifically to appeal to older voters, had any positive effect for the Conservatives with this age group?

Explanations include the generally poor campaign the Conservatives have so far run, a waning belief in the Conservative Government’s ability to deliver on anything, and a sense that a Labour victory is now inevitable, and so a vote for the Conservatives would be wasted. 

But principally, the reason why many older voters might support both proposals, but still not be inclined to vote Conservative, is that neither directly relates to the three key policy areas pensioners say will most determine how they intend to vote on 4 July: The economy, healthcare, and immigration. Even pensions rank as only the sixth most important issue in determining how those aged over 65 will vote in the election, while defence and foreign affairs ranks tenth of the issues listed.

At the same time, by focusing its policy offering so narrowly towards older voters, the Conservatives risk further exacerbating their appalling poll ratings with younger age groups, with the party currently trailing Labour amongst voters aged 18-24 and 25-34 by 38% and 31%, respectively.

Little that has been announced in the past two weeks will do much to counteract the impression that the Conservatives have little to offer young people.

When asked which party ‘Stands by Young People’ just 16% of those aged 18-24 chose the Conservatives, against 42% who select Labour.

In fact, only 14% of Britons most associate the Conservatives with the characteristic ‘Stands by young people, the second-lowest figure for the party when voters are asked to choose which party between the Conservatives and Labour they most associate with a range of characteristics.

And so, while the Conservatives fruitlessly chase the votes of older voters, many of whom have given up on the party and don’t believe it can deliver on the biggest issues, their policy proposals only drive younger voters further away.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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