The Rt Hon Matthew Hancock MP: Aspiration Nation

July 7, 2014

It’s great to be here, and I want to begin by thanking Bright Blue for hosting this conference.

The central message from today is that we win elections when we’re being optimistic about Britain.

It’s there in our history – from Harold Macmillan’s ‘you’ve never had it so good’, to Margaret Thatcher’s revolutionary zeal for a property-owning democracy.

When we’re telling a story about a Britain on the rise, about a Britain where our children can aspire to more than their parents, that is when we take the public with us.

I am an unremitting optimist. And it’s vital that we keep making the optimists’ argument.

Because we didn’t come into government just to clear up Labour’s mess, and our long-term economic plan isn’t just about economics. It is a moral mission too.

Tackling the deficit isn’t just about stabilising the economy, it is about saying we can be more than just an over-indebted ex-great power, sliding into post-industrial obscurity; that we hope for something better for this country.

Our welfare reforms aren’t just about saving money, but creating a truly compassionate, enabling Welfare State, one which has higher hopes for people than just a signature every fortnight.

It is that spirit of optimism – that instinctive Tory trust in human capability – which is the golden thread tying our policy programme together.

And looking at the electorate we, as a party, have greater cause to be optimistic than ever before.

It used be said that while Margaret Thatcher won all the big economic arguments, she failed to win the culture war.

Yet the evidence increasingly suggests that the tide is turning.

We know from polling data that the under-30s are more closely aligned with Conservative values than their parents or grandparents.

They are more likely to value self-reliance over state-dependence – being less likely to support higher welfare payments for the unemployed.

They are more likely to believe the state taxes and spends too much – and want to keep more of what they earn, because they’ve had to fight for it.

Yes they’re more socially liberal, but so too is the modern Conservative Party: the party of gay marriage, extended paternity leave and tax-free childcare for working families.

Yet only 22 percent of first-time voters polled earlier this year say they will vote Conservative, compared to 41 percent for Labour.

So we have to earn those votes. Our political task is to convert those Conservative values into Conservative votes.

First and foremost that means policies which deliver for young people.

First-time voters say jobs and skills are their top priorities.

And having seen what Labour did for their older brothers and sisters, they’re right to be concerned.

Between 1997 and 2010 youth unemployment increased by 40%. At least 350,000 teenagers were fobbed off with poor quality vocational courses which employers didn’t respect or need.

And it’s a national scandal that Labour left us unique in the OECD in failing to equip today’s school leavers with better literacy and numeracy skills than their grandparents.

But we’re turning this around. Since 2010, our long-term economic plan has delivered more than 2 million private sector jobs, and we are on track for 2 million more Apprenticeships by the end of this Parliament.

We are revolutionising vocational education, so that it truly matches university as a route into a good job.

We’ve applied a new test to every vocational qualification, asking is it rigorous, is it respected, and is it a route to employment?

Where the answer is no, we’ve removed public funding.

We’re rolling out Technical Awards and Tech Levels: new vocational qualifications, designed in partnership with employers, to sit alongside GCSEs and A-levels.

And unlike Labour, we have been unashamedly on the side of the individual learner, not the education provider.

We’ve given schools more autonomy, but within a framework of stronger accountability. League tables now specifically measure achievement in the subjects valued by universities and employers.

And for the first time they will show the destinations of school leavers, not just grades. Schools and colleges will be measured against how many students go into an Apprenticeship, further study or University, and how many end up NEET. These destination league tables will mean schools will have to work harder on building relationships with employers – tackling the key concern of business as set out by the CBI last week.

This agenda is natural Tory territory because it’s about earned reward, not something for nothing.

Learning takes grit, graft, application and perseverance. There are no short-cuts, but the rewards are worth it.

We know that the higher the level of your qualifications the more likely you are to be in work. In 2011 less than half of those with no qualifications – 45 percent – were in work.

This is compared to 80 percent for people with at least one qualification.

It is through education that we go from being prisoners of circumstance to captains of our economic fate.

Better schools and skills are essential part of delivering for young people.

We also need to look at the labour market, and make easier than ever for businesses to take on school and college leavers.

That’s why we’re abolishing NICs for under-21s, and why we’ve reformed employment law so that firms are taking less of a risk when they give young people with no track record the chance to prove themselves.

Our policies back Britain’s young people and we are building them a brighter and better future. This education, skills, and jobs policy is a moral mission to spread opportunity. It is a matter of social justice. It is a deeply ethical drive which will help most the most vulnerable.

For good policy alone is not enough, nor is it adequate to talk just about statistics and hope the message will get through.

As Robert Kennedy said, GDP ‘measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’

Younger voters should know that we’re on their side.

For it is wrong to say that younger voters simply aren’t interested in politics.

But it’s more accurate to say that they’re less interested in political parties.

Every day we see huge numbers engaging in debate on Twitter and Facebook, and they behave like enlightened consumers – picking out specific issues that matter to them and discarding the rest.

This is because individual choice is encoded into the fabric of the web. Amazon and iTunes have succeeded by offering their customers absolute choice, however obscure their interests happen to be. At the click of a mouse, these sites allow the user access to virtually anything their markets have to offer.

Today’s digital natives – the generation who can’t remember a time before the internet – expect the same of their politics, hence the rise of fringe parties and single-issue campaign groups.

So it’s vital that we communicate with younger voters, or Generation Right as they have become known, using modern media. And the great thing about social media is that the electorate can talk back, it’s a dialogue.

We’ve already shown how modern media can be used to political effect.  RoadTrip 2015, our voluntary campaign team, is essentially a social media phenomenon. Our ‘Share The Facts’ campaign tool on the Conservatives website ensures online activists are armed with the facts they need to argue out the big political issues of the week on Twitter and Facebook.

Our job is to earn the respect of young voters, continuing to build on our youth offer and communicating to them on the issues that matter to them, on the platforms that they use. Above all, we must be relentlessly optimistic. Our message to young people must be that we want a Britain in which everyone can achieve their potential, earn their own success and share in the recovery we have built.

The Rt Hon Matthew Hancock is a Minister of State in the Departments for Energy and Climate Change and Business, Innovation and Skills