Rebels turning to the Tories

Erk. I had a big pile of things I wanted to write about. But a lack of time and a mild bout of blog depression have meant I haven’t been updating. I didn’t realise my last post was as long ago as last Wednesday, but there we go.

Anyway, before I can get motivated enough to write something decent, I thought I’d mention an interesting article I read in last week’s Economist. It touches on a similar topic recently covered on this blog — student apathy.

In addition to the idea that students are politically motivated in general, there is also a stereotype that most of them tend to be left-wing. The statistics in The Economist‘s article then make for very interesting reading.

In 2004–2005 the Liberal Democrats were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular party among students. What’s surprising is the fact that they apparently had the support of over 50% of students! Amazing. Of course, that period saw them at the height of their powers due to their stance on the hugely unpopular Iraq War. Since then, in a reflection of the wider trend, support for the Lib Dems has fallen a fair amount.

That probably correlates a lot with my political views. Back in 2004–2005 I was quite an ardent supporter of the Lib Dems. Now I am more lukewarm.

What is also perhaps surprising is that Labour’s support has not decreased all that much. Even though Labour are limping around, the long-term trend among students is more topsy-turvy and the fall certainly isn’t as dramatic as the Lib Dems’. Nevertheless, fallen they have.

So the Conservatives now apparently have the support of 45% of students. Interesting. The Economist has been having a bit of fun and games with this. “A man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart, whereas one who is still a socialist at 40 has no head” — so are today’s students heartless?

I suppose one obvious response to this would be to say that Labour are not socialists. But nor are the Conservatives. You would expect a surge in support for the Greens or another far-left party (SSP / Respect / what-have-you). But the Tories?

I think the answer lies more in this:

For today’s young rebels in search of a cause, the Left is the establishment: an 18-year-old starting university this autumn will have been just seven when Labour came to power.

Students are not disproportionately left-wing in my view. If they were, then they aren’t now. I think most people my age are pretty weary of socialism because a basic reading of its history should tell you to be weary of it. In my highly unscientific and no doubt prejudicial straw poll that I have conducted in my head, many of the most left-wing people at university were also the ones who probably had the highest incomes.

Just as for those who grew up in the 1980s the Conservatives were the establishment party not to be trusted, today’s youngsters are growing up with a deep, deep resentment towards the Labour party. These days it is almost certainly cooler to be a Conservative supporter than a Labour supporter. And given Labour’s record in government, who can blame students for thinking so?

As a side-effect, if it finally means the world will finally be rid of those deeply hypocritical Che Guevara t-shirts, then thank goodness for that!


  1. Doctor Vee,

    I think you’re right about the establishment issue. Perhaps not ‘the left’ but certainly Labour.

    Labour have been in power in the UK for 11 years and were in power in Scotland for 8 (albeit not for the last year). It’s only natural therefore that they will no longer attract the same protest-floating vote, which is perhaps what students being younger represent.

    In terms of students general voting intentions there probably is an element of the black-white view of the world which will change as people get older. Although if you consider the general class background of people who went to uni in the 60s-80s then it’s likely there were a sizeable proportion of Tories amongst them.

    The big change is obviously the expansion of higher education in the early-90s and the creation of so many new universities. With higher education participation approaching 50% (although not all through university) then it just makes it more statistically likely that those students will be reflective of society as a whole.

    However the one place I would have to disagree with you is on the Tory/Labour support thing. Whilst I think younger people will have less of an antipathy towards the Tories than those who are old enough to remember what they did when they were in power I think it’s unlikely that there are swathes of people who would be genuine Labour supporters who are so turned off by this government that they back the Tories instead.

    The Lib Dems or left parties, but surely not the Tories?

  2. I went to University in the late 1970s and 1980s. At that time, the Tories were not very popular given their overall societal strategy and their specific budget cutting with Universities. I can’t even remember if there was a Conservative Association at Stirling University when I was there. But then Jack McConnell was the President of the Student Association at that time, starting out his evil plan of political ascendancy.

  3. Ideas of Civilisation,

    Yeah, that’s why I found the shift to the Conservatives so interesting. Maybe it just reflects the fact that there are no lefty-parties that are capable of breaking through. The commenter on the Economist article says he thinks students will be more likely to support the Tories because it’s more pragmatic than supporting the Lib Dems (or, presumably, the Greens) because they are so weak.

    My personal perspective from Edinburgh University was that there are a lot of Green students. I don’t think that’s an Edinburgh-only thing either as the Greens did quite well in Glasgow Kelvin in last year’s Scottish Parliament election. There is probably a Scotland / England divide there though, because the Scottish Greens have actually had parliamentarians which makes them look like a much more viable alternative.

    There’s an opportunity here to go off on one about FPTP but I will resist that. 🙂

  4. Admittedly I was on the Economics course at Uni so probably not the most representative group as far as apathy went. Therefore in the late 80s early 90s we had the Chair of the student Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens plus me as another Lib Dem office bearer all on the same course.

    Admittedly back then it was easy to get students to be anti-Tory as said above. They were making us pay poll tax admittedly only 20% of it but still enough to rankle all students

  5. When I was at university, there were several active political societies, but the most active one seemed to be the Communist society. This was particularly odd as there was never a Communist candidate in the elections for the university’s constituencies (the student housing was spread across at least two, and possibly three, constituencies, which softened the impact of their votes).

    In the absence of such a candidate, Liberal Democrats seemed to be the most popular choice, closely followed by apathy. Conservatives and Labour were generally seen as the same party in different colour schemes, partly due to both advocating the war in Iraq and the idea of student loans. Though my views were complicated because my constituency (not the university’s constituency) is a brilliant Old Labour MP, which I was aware wasn’t even representative of Labour as a whole, let alone the Conservatives…