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Why the economic liberalism of the young might not doom the left

If there is a glimmer of hope, it is that it is the free market model embraced by the young is failing them. They could be won round.

Boris Johnson talks to the press during the press conference to announce the future of the Olympic Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images.

For some, the fact that Nigel Farage’s UKIP averaged 26 per cent in the recent local council elections signifies the approaching end of the three-party system and its replacement with a multiparty model along continental lines.

In this version of events, the success of UKIP is explained in the following terms: the public are 'sick and tired' of corrupt politicians who have 'never done a real day’s work'. Consequently, they are ready to throw the gates of Westminster open to a man who 'says what the public are really thinking in a no-nonsense fashion'. 

There are several problems with this analysis.

Firstly, UKIP’s recent electoral feat is unlikely to be repeated at the general election. Putting to one side the fact that projections of UKIP’s potential success in 2015 are based on assumptions the party will do well in places like Scotland (oh really?), this misconception also rests on the idea that people vote the same way in council elections as they do in general elections. They don’t.

The public may respond to an anti-politics figure like Farage when the stakes aren’t particularly high, but when it comes to the pinch they don’t generally want the pub bore and know-it-all sitting in 10 Downing Street with a direct line to the President of the United States. Today everyone seems to have forgotten that UKIP came third in the 2004 European elections under the leadership of another charismatic chancer only to flounder soon after, achieving just 2.3 per cent of the vote at the general election the following year.

Taking the longer view there is another, more straightforward reason not to view UKIP as a threat beyond 2015: Farage’s party represents the last gasp of genuinely reactionary England. While striking a chord with voters on immigration and Europe, on social issues UKIP is wildly at odds with several generations of younger voters. To paraphrase William F. Buckley, the party is attempting to stand athwart history yelling 'stop'.

The problem for the left is that while it might be reasonable to expect UKIP to fade in the coming years (48 per cent of the party’s voters are over 60), at some point a politician of the right who is able to effectively combine enthusiasm for the unfettered free market with genuine social liberalism will emerge - a combination that, judging by public attitudes, could be prove much harder to counter.

Today, right across the board, young people are more tolerant of things like gay marriage, drugs and sex than older voters. They are also a lot less supportive of the welfare state and much more likely to subscribe to ideas associated with neo-liberalism than their older contemporaries.

According to the 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA), more than two-thirds of people born before 1939 consider the welfare state "one of Britain’s proudest achievements". The figure for those born after 1979, however, is less than a third.

Despite continued strong support for the National Health Service, the BSA survey showed an inexorable hardening of attitudes toward many traditional left-wing concerns. In 1991 over half (58 per cent) of Britons agreed that the government should spend more on benefits even if it resulted in higher taxes. Last year that figure was just 28 per cent. More than half also believed people would “stand on their own two feet” if benefits were less generous, while only 20 per cent disagreed. Going back to 1993 the responses were almost exactly the opposite.

For the left, the glimmer of hope (if I can put it that way) is that it is the very economic liberalism embraced by the young that is failing them, meaning there is at least a chance they can be won over to the opposing view. Today it takes a first time buyer saving half their annual income more than 10 years to put together a deposit for their first home, and in London that figure rises to 24 years. Young people are also much more likely than adults to be unemployed. In the last quarter of 2012, one in four young workers with five good GCSEs and 40 per cent of those with no qualifications were unemployed. Those who decide to go to university can expect to be saddled with debts that, in some instances, they may never pay off.

A politician who combines enthusiasm for the unfettered free market with genuine social liberalism sounds like a familiar theme, doesn’t it? Wasn’t David Cameron supposed to be just such a figure, a modern Conservative who was willing to embrace gay marriage, immigration and single parent families while pursuing right-wing economics?

He was supposed to be, yes; however, despite managing to get the equal marriage bill passed, it’s become abundantly clear just how little Cameron has failed to reform the Conservative Party, which looks longingly in the direction of Nigel Farage.

The old post-1989 cliché used to have it that it was the left that had won the culture war while the right had triumphed in the economic arena. Britain being a place where change generally occurs at a leisurely pace, it may be that we are simply waiting for the right politician to appear to drive home the message. Boris 2020, perhaps?

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward