A more tolerant society doesn’t mean a more left-wing one

July 2021 may have been the most solipsistic month in England’s history. Gareth Southgate and his team were hailed by applause-hungry journalists as the embodiment of a previously elusive progressive patriotism and the footballers positioned themselves at the vanguard of a campaign for a militantly tolerant society

Amid all the self-congratulation there was something odd about how England turned in on itself. Although it felt like a “moment”, it also felt apolitical and not just because everyone was on the same side. It may seem counterintuitive, but a more tolerant culture does not mean a more left-wing politics. When it comes to young voters, identity politics is a red herring. 

“Young people are very liberal, but they’re libertarian,” says Professor Glen O’Hara of Oxford Brookes University. “They’re not particularly collectivist on economic and social policy, their politics don’t sit neatly on the traditional left/ right spectrum and they’re not very attached to the state.” 

If young progressive politics is cultural, not economic, its capacity to bring about structural change – to challenge inequality, for example – is minimal. Support for Labour, which won 62 per cent of 18- to 24-year-old voters in 2019, seems predicated, for the most part, on an endorsement of Labour’s “values” and a protest against the perceived “values” of the Tories, rather than on economic programmes or ideologies. There are no signs young people are flocking to the revolution. 

“What a lot of young people are saying is not ‘We want to push over these structures’ but ‘We want a bit of them’,” says O’Hara. Anything can be co-opted by the establishment, including social liberalism. Although right-wing politicians and the media that support them know not to alienate their base, they have time to evolve with the turning of society’s wheel. The market economy is forever tweaking its appearance so that its inner workings are protected. 

Car adverts are particularly useful in revealing the myths of a society. Marketing is remarkably nimble (though not always subtle) in its appropriation of attitudes their clients have previously either ignored or hindered up to the point when it became commercially expedient for them to change tack. In the 1980s car adverts sold aspiration and wealth; in the 1990s it was freedom and adventure. After the 2008 crash, safety and protection were fetishised, while now adverts reflect our obsessions with identity and self-determination. Who would have believed even five years ago that a campaign for Renault would include the sweeping narrative of a 30-year same-sex love story? In itself it’s a great thing, but it shows how difference and diversity – hitherto considered signs of a challenge to the mainstream – are now part of capitalist culture’s all-absorbing blob.

If the young want to opt in, not drop out, the biggest single threat to the status quo is the lack of affordable housing. “Anthony Eden and Margaret Thatcher were right,” says O’Hara. “You’ve got to have a property-owning democracy. Well, we’re not going to have one. The Tories are really just building up their own funeral pyre by denying it.” 

The other obvious source of dissatisfaction among the young is the electoral system, which denies the parties and policies they favour and rewards those of their parents and grandparents. In the 2019 general election, 45.3 per cent of all votes were unrepresented (not for the winning candidate). “First past the post” means there are too many safe seats, breeding more apathy. Younger voters live either in safe Labour urban seats, where their votes don’t change anything, or with their parents in less urban, safe Tory seats, where, you guessed it, their votes don’t change anything. 

Young people are also a smaller demographic – yet another structural advantage for the Conservatives. Excluding the over-65s, there are fewer 18- and 19-year-olds than any other age in the UK. That will change, but when you factor in low turnout in general elections (47 per cent for 18- to 24-year-olds, compared to 66 per cent for 55 to 64 and 74 per cent for over-65s) you can see why politics appears a game for the stale, if less so the male and pale. “We’ve got these fuddy-duddy parties who don’t have a clue how to appeal to young people,” says O’Hara. The most common projection for escaping this bind is a progressive coalition standing on electoral reform, but it is just talk for now. 

Research into the 2017 general election has shown that Labour’s decent performance (they still lost, after all) was due not to greater youth turnout but to an increase in support across all ages, including the over-65s. It is the recurring dream of the old left that rickety Tories will keep dying off to be replaced by young progressives who will stay true to their beliefs as they age. That’s not how politics works. Tony Blair simply won Tory voters – not the young or the old, but Tories in Tory seats. To a lesser extent that happened again in 2017. That was a matter of persuasion, not demographics.

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