It’s time to break the left’s grip on the young

Emily Carver

December 14, 2019

Regardless of last week’s decisive win for the Tories, one thing’s for sure: young people have bought into the left’s “post-capitalist” agenda. Indeed, had the younger generations had their way, we would have seen a landslide victory for Labour and their far-left economic agenda.

This should be a cause for concern in its own right, but what’s even more worrying is the growing intolerance of alternative viewpoints. These days, one offhand comment is all it takes to set off the outrage mob.

Young people tend to be more idealistic when it comes to politics. Perhaps this partially explains why millennial socialism is on the rise. While those who remember the legacy of socialist policies tend to view it in a negative light, young Britons are far more likely to favour a socialist world they’ve never experienced.

But idealism isn’t the fully story. The Overton window has shifted dramatically to the left in the UK. So much so that to argue against the overriding left-wing consensus is to make yourself vulnerable to deeply personal, emotive attacks.

No clearer had this been to me than in the run-up to the general election.

Recently I dared to suggest to a young teacher that there may be left-wing bias in schools and universities, which quickly descended into angry outbursts and tears. On social media, I made the mistake of posting my thoughts on national security, which don’t fit today’s woke consensus. This led to an emotional pile-on and immediate “unfriending”.

I’ve learned the hard way that publicly admitting your preference for free market economics and prudent fiscal policy can result in social niceties fading away. You find yourself bombarded with dubious measures of inequality, austerity-caused deaths and poverty. And if you try to break down the statistics or analyse their assertions, only more hostility comes your way.

The problem reaches far beyond people’s personal Facebook pages or chats down at the pub. Celebrities and “influencers” with millions of followers on various platforms spew out socialist propaganda day after day. They reject enterprise and aspiration, despite having been the direct beneficiaries of this free market system. But they’re famous, so their assertions that we live in Dickensian times all largely go unchallenged.

Why has it become so fashionable for young people to demonise capitalism when it has raised their living standards so dramatically and lifted so many millions out of poverty? Why are we, as a highly educated generation, quite so bad at reading beyond the headlines and engaging critically?

There are plenty of compelling arguments about this phenomenon, some of which my colleague Dr Kristian Niemietz has put forth.

My worry is that too many young people have simply never, or very rarely, heard the case for economic liberalism.

The education system has a lot to answer for here. A recent survey by the Adam Smith Institute found that eight in 10 university lecturers are left wing, while the latest survey of school teachers shows 60 per cent are planning to vote Labour, compared with only 15 per cent for the Conservatives.

As a result, socialist ideas often go unchallenged, however spurious the claims may be. Worse, people gain a false sense of moral superiority simply for holding left wing views.

But there’s also a lack of understanding of what “moral” or “principled” socialism means in practice.

The horror stories of the Soviet Union and Venezuela have been well documented, so now the left cites Scandinavian countries as proof that socialism works.

Either their goal is to rebrand socialism as free-market capitalism, or they have no idea what the economic systems of these countries look like. Scandinavian countries thrive precisely because they are free market (with many countries operating welfare states roughly the same size as our own).

This also ignores the huge challenges facing these countries, both economically and socially. Indeed, Sweden is finding its welfare state increasingly difficult to sustain and has chosen to liberalise its economy massively in recent years as a result of sluggish economic growth.

It’s too often ignored that Sweden’s economy took a rapid nosedive from the 1970s onwards precisely as a result of the expansion of state intervention in the economy, dramatic increases in public spending (peaking in 1993 at a whopping 67 per cent of GDP), and the introduction of punitive taxation rates.

There’s also a lack of historical knowledge and little memory of Britain’s recent past. The 1970s and the winter of discontent were no socialist paradise but instead were characterised by widespread strikes, sky-high interest rates, the International Monetary Fund bailout, rubbish piled up on the streets and power cuts.

If you ignore the realities of history – not simply abroad but here at home – you can see why young people might believe socialism is the way forward.

And if you acknowledge the evidence that free market economics has led to poverty falling both in both relative and absolute terms, with the absolute figure at its lowest on record; that material deprivation is a fifth lower than in 2010, and that unemployment is at its lowest for more than 40 years (less than half of what it is in France), you can see why people aren’t keen for debate.

Unfortunately, young people are increasingly unwilling to look beyond the headlines and dig deeper into the figures. It’s far easier to demonise the billionaires than it is to examine the legacy of socialism and the case for economic liberalism, even when we’ve benefitted so much from the freedom capitalism gives us.

The Tories came out of last week with a handsome majority – indeed, the largest for the party since the days of Margaret Thatcher. But it’s clear that free marketeers have a battle on our hands to win favour with many people my age. Socialism has stolen the hearts and minds of millennials – and it’s high time we won them back.


Written by Emily Carver

Emily Carver is the Editor at 1828 and Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.


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