Britain’s Conservative Youth

In the US, the young are politically left of their parents, but in the UK, it’s the other way round

In the U.S., the Republican Party has an ageing base and is struggling to connect with young voters. I was therefore surprised to learn that in the United Kingdom, support for conservatives goes in the opposite generational direction.

Writing in The Guardian’s indispensible G2 supplement, John Harris notes that:

One recent YouGov poll put support for the Tories among the 18-24s at 31%, with Labour trailing at 27%. By way of a contrast, Tory support among those aged 40-59 was at 29%, with Labour on 40%. In other words, the time-worn wisdom about politics and the young may be in the process of being turned on its head. Welcome, then, to yet another element of the New Normal, and a sobering fact: when it comes to questions about the welfare state, work and the like, the younger you are, the more rightwing you’re likely to be.

I hope other journalists will dig further into why Britain’s Generation Y is more conservative than their parents. I suspect part of it may be that Thatcher-hatred, which still drives Britons of a certain age away from the Tories, is not something to which young adults relate because the 1980s are ancient history in their minds.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “Britain’s Conservative Youth”

  1. I suspect that the difference between the US and the UK has something to do with the lack of a Bush administration for young Britons to vote against. Cameron also does social conservatism in a way which appeals more to people who have grown up with gay friends – the preferred position on gay marriage among young British people who lean socially conservative appears to be absistence before it and fidelity during it.

    At a big picture level, it isn’t surprising why young adults without kids are unenthusiastic about the welfare state – it isn’t for us. I don’t remember left-wing Boomers in the 60’s being particularly noisy in their calls for generous pensions for the old farts who “just didn’t get it”.

  2. The link to the original poll is broken, but I think I found the actual link as well as a more recent one (June 25-26) and an older one (April 29-30).

    Looking at the data behind all of them, I cannot agree with the article’s conclusion. Most importantly, the data for the 18-24 cohort seems to be highly volatile, possibly because of the really small sample size for the June 3 poll (see also the extremely high UKIP numbers). In April, there was a 49-24 Labour-Conservatives split, in late June we had a 33-31 Labour-Conservatives split.

    Also, the Labour + Conservative numbers do not remotely add up to 100%. A considerable number of youths seem to favor the LibDems, but there’s also a fair number of votes for UKIP, the SNP/Plaid Cymru, and the Greens. Even combinining Tory and UKIP numbers (and leaving aside whether all UKIP voters are conservatives or primarily protest voters), I do not see that conservative groundswell among the 18-24s.

    A detail from the article that resonates with me, though: I find the hostility against JSA among some of the British people (hardly all of them conservative, though) puzzling. Not only does Great Britain have one of the crappier welfare systems in Western Europe, but the Jobcentres are reported to be pretty aggressive about withholding JSA when they think somebody’s not actively looking for a job, let alone recent allegations about the use of league tables that set target numbers for kicking JSA recipients out.

    1. What is JSA, Katja?

      Another point on the survey: they (like everyone else) are having trouble reaching 18-24 year olds. If the table reads as it should, note that the “unweighted sample” (that is, “Who did we really talk to?”) has 70 18- 24 yos and the “weighted sample” (that is, “Who would we talk to if we could control who we talk to?”) has 168 yos in it. So, small sample sizes mean high volatility and their responses are heavily up-weighted.

    2. I don’t think this is fair to Harris, who did not hang his conclusion on one poll but on a range of sources, including shoe leather reporting. And it adds to credibility that he is clearly a man of the left who does not like what he sees in the Uk young. The natural tendency of a leftist would be to deny any popularity of the right, but the people he interviewed were apparently committed enough to overcome any bias he may have had to deny reality.

    1. I agree. What’s more, the run-up to the Iraq War really seems to have highlighted the Faustian bargain with the City and the right-wingers like Rupert Murdoch that brought “New Labour” to power in the first place. I don’t know how Labour recovers from having Marget Thacher’s true heir as it leader but I doubt that having an insipid technocrat leading a gang of lobbyists, fixers and careerists is likely to restore Labour’s vigor. Labour probably will win the next general election but that’s seems like a mere resting point in Labour’s death spiral and it will continue to decline as a party until its leaders find something that they believe in more than themselves.

  3. Leaving aside the concerns about the validity of the survey or at least of its interpretation raised by Katja, it does seem to me that Labour has lost its way. Having accepted implicitly every assumption of conservatism (and especially of austerity) in its drive to become “New Labour,” it has ceased to exist as a party of the left. It is devoid of ideas. It fights not on behalf of the ordinary people of England but instead competes with the Conservatives as champions of bankers and hedge fund managers.

    It seems to be that, except for the extreme right, almost the entire political class of Europe has become an inbred elite that has lost touch with the worries and interests of ordinary people. Labour and Conservatives are seen by most Englishmen as two sides of the same dirty coin; there are no real ideological differences between them and both parties now are complicit in profiteering and rigging the use of state power for their own advantage. Labour needs some new blood willing to speak out and, more importantly, take action to reinvigorate trade unionism, to fight against the bankers and restore prosperity to England.

    1. My problem with Labour (or for that matter the US Democratic Party) is not the initial turn to the right: to become a plutocrat-tolerant party. This was needed to convince voters that Labour (or the Democrats) could be a responsible party of governance. Purity is not the stuff of politics, and the economic populism of 1970 looked as quaint as a Stalinist poster.

      What bugs me is that this turn to plutocracy has continued and intensified, even as voters are increasingly disgusted with the plutocrats. Labour and the Democrats continue to snuggle up to the plutocrats, even as the electoral advantage to this has become a liability.

      1. True but the personal advantage to the political class of sucking up to the rich, and especially the CEO and financiers who benefit so hugely from a captive government and regulatory apparatus is immense. It is quickly becoming a cradle-to-grave system of social welfare for people who are will to cater to these people when making government policy or enforcing law and regulations. “Government service” is one of the few areas of almost unrestrained upward social and economic mobility left in this country.

        1. “’Government service’ is one of the few areas of almost unrestrained upward social and economic mobility left in this country.”

          Isn’t that what they used to say about the Soviet Union? Ouch!

  4. So data is reported saying that young UK citizens are less likely to support the welfare state than are older UK citizens and the “obvious” explanation that most of the folks on this thread have for the resurgence of the Conservative Party among younger voters is that Labour has abandoned its traditional full-throated support for the welfare state. “Reality Based” indeed.

    1. I don’t think there any lack of self-awareness or inability to grasp reality reflected in the discussion about this post. There are many commenters here of whom I am one that have argued very strongly that the decline of the left and center-left both here and in Europe is due to a disturbing reluctance to stand up for liberalism instead of meekly accepting the the conservative narrative.

      For too long, liberals have been cowed by the bullying tactics of the hard-right. Liberals in this county have been bullied to remind people about the historic achievements of liberalism or to speak up about how conservatism has destroyed the great prosperity of Europe and America. “New Labour” cannot even bring itself to criticize the insane economic policies of the Conservative government which has crushed the economy and now threatens to destroy the very fabric of English society.

      My own feeling is that liberalism has been loosing support, particularly among the young people, because they do not understand that nearly everything that makes their lives at all tolerable is the result of the struggle for social justice waged by the left. The eight-hour day, decent working conditions, paid vacations, sick leave, pensions, and an end to child labor didn’t come about because of the magic of the free markets but because trade unionists fought for them.

      Consequently, one can argue that studies like this, along with the resurrection of the hard right both here and in Europe, show that the problem is that liberalism has become quiescent.

  5. At the risk of stating the obvious, politics in the UK is substantially to the left of US politics, with the Conservatives somewhat to the left of the Democrats. In US terms the survey shows that the UK young are less likely to hold far left views, which may well also be true in the US (“far left” here means something like the political center in a country like France).

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