Are Tory housing and pensions policies ageist?
In an era where diversity is paramount and ageism frowned upon, have two of this week’s Conservative announcements struck a backward-looking note? And more importantly, do they stand up to scrutiny?
It was a less-than-perfect start for the Conservative Party Conference. Mark Reckless MP “did a Carswell” by announcing his defection to UKIP, and Tory civil-society minister Brooks Newmark resigned following some reckless behaviour of his own. Perfect timing. And, as it happens, getting the timing right will be central to two of the biggest policies floated by the Conservatives this week.
This column has previously explored how political communication can learn from how retail brands segment their audiences. On the basis of the speeches, it seems that the key variable for segmentation in the party’s policy grid is age.
If you’re under 40 and a first time buyer, then the Conservatives will help you buy a house at 20% less than market value. If you live in it, work hard and save for your retirement, then your relatives can inherit your pension pot tax free if you die before 75 – or at their own, marginal tax rate if you die at an older age. So: two key demographics dealt with, and a reward in this life and the next for hard-working people who do the right thing. Meanwhile, further cuts are to be achieved, at least in part, by a freeze on welfare. Populist positioning.
Is it clever politics? Maybe. Inheritance is a major issue for the Tory faithful, and George Osborne has a good track record. The inheritance-tax policies he announced at the Conservative conference in 2008 may not have been implemented, but are nonetheless credited with scaring Gordon Brown away from an early election. House prices are recognised across the political spectrum as a frustration for younger people who don’t have family to back them, so the Conservatives want to be seen to take action here.
However, both policies look risky. They are complicated, difficult to communicate effectively, and they create artificial milestones in markets. This is bound to lead to unintended consequences.
The housing market is already skewed by various stamp-duty thresholds, which create ceilings in the price of homes and odd deals on the purchase of fixtures and fittings – followed by huge leaps in price past stamp duty levels. Now, new thresholds are based upon the age of the purchaser. Best hurry into the market if you’re 39. And if you’re past that sell-by date – or not a first time buyer – perhaps you can find yourself a partner who fits those criteria. Caveats will be in place to prevent quick sales – although someone will no doubt find a way to challenge those – and it will all be made possible by the savings brought about by building on brownfield land, which can be notoriously expensive to remediate. A bit of a minefield this.
Then there are pensions where the precise date of someone’s death becomes financially relevant to their beneficiaries. Unpleasant scenarios in which this weighs upon the decision making of an individual considering their own care, or that of an older relative, may seem far-fetched – but just one emotive case threatens the entire policy.
Arbitrary cut-offs are sometimes inevitable in policymaking. But creating two, new age-based limits when ageism is frowned upon and people are increasingly leading lives that stray from the 2.2 children norm could store up trouble for the future.
Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.