Libertarian, republican, anti-capitalist? If that is how you think of Britain’s youth, think again. A special survey for the New Statesman finds that they are a cautious generation, wary of radical change – whether it concerns drugs, the monarchy or the global economy.
Earlier this month, YouGov surveyed more than 1,000 people in the 16- to 25-year-old age range. The poll was conducted online, using the same methods that enabled YouGov to predict accurately the outcomes of last year’s general election, the Conservative leadership contest and the recent Pop Idol competition. This is what the poll found.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats are neck and neck (on 36 per cent among those naming a party), with the Conservatives trailing in third place on 29 per cent. Compared with YouGov’s latest poll among voters of all ages, Labour and the Tories are both four points down among 16- to 25-year-olds, while the Liberal Democrats are seven points up.
One of Labour’s problems with young Britain is Tony Blair’s reputation. When our sample was asked to say which politician (from a list of ten) they most admired, the Prime Minister came top with 15 per cent picking him – but rather more, 20 per cent, picked him from the same list as the politician they most disliked.
Many found Blair too right-wing for their liking. Indeed, more people place the Prime Minister to the right of centre (27 per cent) than to the left of centre (23 per cent). In contrast, 42 per cent place Charles Kennedy to the left of centre, while only 4 per cent reckon he is on the right.
More members of our sample place themselves on the left (33 per cent) than on the right (20 per cent). However, another way of looking at the same figures is that two-thirds of young Britain does not place itself on the left. Four out of ten either don’t know where they stand (11 per cent) or say “these labels are irrelevant” (29 per cent). By the traditional left-right yardstick, Kennedy is more in tune with Britain’s newest voters.
The Tories’ biggest problem is that Iain Duncan Smith is virtually invisible. Even though the oldest members of YouGov’s sample were only 14 when Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street, she provokes far stronger reactions among them (13 per cent admire her most, 28 per cent dislike her most) than IDS (3 per cent admire, 9 per cent dislike). Even among Tory supporters, only 10 per cent name IDS as the politician they most admire. Among this group, Thatcher, on 47 per cent, sweeps all before her.
The poll finds little backing for the anti-globalisation protesters of Seattle and Genoa. Just 5 per cent “support the demonstrators’ aims and also their methods”. The rest are evenly divided between those who support their aims but not their methods, and those who support neither.
Two out of three young Britons basically support global capitalism – though most of them with the caveat that “more must be done to make sure that its benefits are spread more fairly”. One in three thinks global capitalism is a bad thing, but only 6 per cent believe it “can and should be destroyed”. Students these days are no more radical than the rest of the younger generation: respondents at college or university hold almost exactly the same range of views on this (and most other) issues as non-students of the same generation.
In the wake of 11 September, a majority of 2:1 supports the “war on terrorism” being undertaken by the United States, Britain and other countries. However, opinion is evenly divided on whether Britain should take part in any military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein of Iraq. This division mirrors the split among Britain’s adults as a whole, as measured by YouGov, MORI and ICM. Once again, anyone looking for the younger generation to lead dissent looks in vain.
Seven out of ten 16- to 25-year-olds think it should be legal for people to possess small amounts of cannabis. But big majorities, ranging from 72 per cent (Ecstasy) to 87 per cent (heroin), think the possession of other drugs should remain illegal – and there is no majority for legalising the sale of any drugs that are currently illegal, including cannabis.
Support for the legalisation of hard drugs is slightly higher among 23- to 25-year-olds than among 16- to 22-year-olds, but even here, there are still big majorities against the legalisation of anything other than the possession of cannabis.
There is no surprise that the present system is deeply unpopular – only 11 per cent of today’s students like it – but there is no consensus as to what should replace it. A further 25 per cent of students would reform the present system of fees and loans, to help students from poorer families, rather than scrap it entirely; 27 per cent back a graduate tax. The biggest student group, but still only a minority (34 per cent), would scrap fees, bring back maintenance grants and increase income tax in general to pay for these.
Politically, however, the government needs to watch its step. Support for this last option falls to just 20 per cent among ex-students. These are people who now face the prospect of paying off past loans. Few of them relish the thought of paying double – which is what would happen if their taxes now rise in order to pay for the return of maintenance grants and the end of tuition fees.
YouGov’s figures dispel any notion that the younger generation wants to turn Britain into a republic. The New Statesman poll was conducted following the death of the Queen Mother. Both the general and the young people’s surveys produced much the same figures: just over half think Prince Charles should succeed the Queen when she dies or abdicates, one in five thinks the crown should skip a generation and pass to Prince William, and fewer than one in four think Britain should scrap the monarchy altogether and elect its head of state instead.
Two out of three 16- to 25-year-olds look forward to a conventional family structure by the time they are in their thirties: they hope to be married and to have children. On this (as on most things), young men and young women think much alike.
One in four young Britons would like to end up living abroad – 10 per cent elsewhere in Europe, 6 per cent in the United States and 9 per cent somewhere else.
YouGov polled 1,084 people aged from 16 to 25 online between 16 and 19 April. The raw data was weighted to match the demographic profile of all 16- to 25-year-olds throughout Britain
Peter Kellner is chairman of YouGov