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.

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

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

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.