‘Jeremy Corbyn said he was “sympathetic” to cancelling past student debt. It was a blatant bid for the bourgeois university vote’
Conservatism does not appeal to the young. It reveres the past, established institutions and tradition, whereas the young look to the future, new ideas and change. So no surprise might be expressed that a difference in the voting patterns of young and old was evident in the 2017 general election. Of course, the secret ballot prevents an exact calculation, but enough is known from opinion polls and the geography of voting to be certain that the young voted heavily for the Labour Party.
What is astonishing is the extent of the disparity. An ICM poll on May 29 found that Labour had the support of 61 per cent of possible voters in the 18-24 age group, whereas the Conservatives’ share was only 12 per cent. Further, in contrast to the 2015 general election the young made a big effort to vote, particularly if they were in full-time education. Electoral Commission data show that more than two million people applied to register to vote in the weeks following the announcement of a snap election. The new voters must have contributed to Labour’s remarkable success in university towns, notably in Cambridge (with a swing to Labour of 15.9 per cent), Oxford East (15.1 per cent) and the four Bristol constituencies (particularly Bristol West where the swing was 30.3 per cent).
What is going on here? Much of the explanation is mercenary, crude and possibly transient. The Labour Party offered two bribes to students. First, its manifesto promised that tuition fees would be scrapped from this September. “Freshers” matriculating this autumn would have had little or no debt overhanging them once they started work three years from now, if Labour were in power. By contrast, they might have debts of more than £30,000 each under the Conservatives. Labour’s plan would add over £10 billion a year to public expenditure. On that basis, students voting against Theresa May were like turkeys voting against Christmas. Second, in an interview for New Musical Express on June 1 Jeremy Corbyn said that he was “sympathetic” to cancelling past student debts. He did not make a definite commitment, perhaps aware that the cost would be a once-for-all increase in the UK’s public debt of £30 billion. But it was a blatant bid for the bourgeois university vote in the largest sense.
Another part of the explanation is more fundamental and for conservatives deeply worrying. In electoral terms, students are more numerous than staff and so matter most. But, in terms of their long-term influence on the political climate, members of staff are far more significant. By writing the textbooks that undergraduates must absorb, and in other ways nudging opinion and attitudes, university teachers have great influence on what young people believe. Such beliefs are the ultimate drivers of political commitment.
Universities depend on government money — in other words, on resources from the rest of society — for their survival. The logical expectation might then be that, on average, people employed by universities would have a political standpoint that roughly matched that of society as a whole. For most of the 20th century that was the case, more or less. But in the last 40 years the situation has changed radically. A well-known 2001 study of public intellectuals by the American legal scholar, Richard Posner, found that they had become predominantly left-wing. By implication, ostensibly the cleverest people in advanced liberal democracies — the kind of people who fill university departments — disapprove of capitalist institutions and structures. If capitalism is taken to be a defining feature of such liberal democracies, the majority of university intellectuals take an adversarial stance towards the societies that support and honour them.
This might be thought odd, even bizarre, but the evidence is that the Left is more entrenched in universities — in both North America and Europe — than ever before. According to a recent study from the Adam Smith Institute, Lackademia: Why do academics lean left?, only 12 per cent of British academics back the Conservative Party or other right-wing political groups, with the proportion declining in the last few decades. Moreover, once a slant of this sort is established, it tends to be self-reinforcing. In all walks of life people want to work with like-minded individuals. Sir Roger Scruton is perhaps this country’s most distinguished avowedly conservative philosopher. In his book with Mark Dooley, Conversations with Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury Continuum, £16.99), he recounts his constant difficulties in finding paid employment in the university sector. While the anecdotes are often hilarious, the larger message — that in the so-called “social sciences” academe is becoming a closed shop for the Left — is terrifying in a theoretically “open” society like Britain.
Of course, top opinion-formers overlap with public intellectuals who overlap with the humanities departments in universities. The opinion-formers were furious with the “populism” that emerged from the Brexit referendum and the Trump presidency. In the recent general election leading Conservative politicians have every reason to be furious with the opinion-formers for encouraging the young to vote for crypto-Marxists like Jeremy Corbyn. Tension between Britain’s universities and the Conservative government is likely to increase between now and the next election. Is the ideal of a university sector free from political influence viable in modern democracies, where opinion-making, intellectual activity and university teaching are inextricably linked?