Young people say they want socialism but do they mean it?

Kieran Neild-Ali

July 7, 2021

It has long been a commonly held assumption that younger people sympathise with socialist ideas. We saw it in the 1960s with student radicals and, in recent years, we have witnessed physical displays of left-wing activism on our streets. Young people have protested over the ‘austerity agenda’, students have shown solidarity towards striking teaching unions, and took to chanting “oh Jeremy Corbyn” at Glastonbury festival.

This week, the Institute of Economic Affairs published a report with polling which shows the majority of young Brits are hostile to capitalism and hold positive views of socialist alternatives. The headline figure is that 67 per cent of young people say they want a socialist economic system. On climate change, the housing crisis and nationalisation, the youth of today see capitalism as evil and socialism as a panacea.

There is no problem with people holding contrary opinions. The absence of a credible opposition these past 16 months has laid bare the pitfalls of allowing a government to operate in an echo chamber and it is unequivocally positive that in our pluralist liberal democracy a “battle of ideas” rages between left and right.

If the youth of Britain are predominantly socialist, so be it. It is their democratic right to be so. But we must ensure there is a debate, the full facts are known, and the views of young people are not formed by biased institutions.

Although the poll shows people have an affinity with socialist positions, when participants were presented with an opposing pro-capitalist statement, the research shows net approval for that argument as well. This suggests that when young people embrace a socialist argument, this is often not a deeply held conviction. The author, Dr Kristian Niemietz, believes this could be because the socialist option may be “the argument they are most familiar with”.

This is both good and bad news. The bad news is a generation of people are unsure why they have socialist tendencies and cannot distinguish between the two economic systems. This suggests a lack of critical thinking and an absence of free market voices in education.

The good news, however, is that the younger generations are not a lost cause. This should, as Niemietz rightly said, act as a rallying cry for proponents of market capitalism to mount a push-back against the socialist orthodoxy established in the minds of young people.

This means changing the perception that capitalism is for the ‘rich’, ‘exploits’ workers and creates ‘inequality’. The positive case for capitalism is easier than many would think. Look at the decline in global poverty over the last 20 years and the advances in living conditions. Our supermarket shelves are stocked full of food, unlike communist North Korea, and consumers benefit daily from the hard work of businesses in tech and services.

But we shouldn’t turn this fight-back into an act of self-congratulation for ‘capitalist achievements’. All too often we have evidence of crony capitalism and corporatism: take the government’s handling of PPE contracts and the Carillion scandal, where public sector contracts were dished out to private providers on careless grounds. On PPE, competitive tender processes were scrapped, leading to nepotism and waste. On Carilion, the government continued to plough taxpayers’ money into a failing contractor because it was deemed the corporate monster was too big to fail.

The conflation of crony capitalism and the market economy, of course, makes the job of the economic liberal more difficult. The former is as much an enemy of capitalists as socialism. But the positive case for freedom, competition and opportunity, which underpins capitalism, is a mantra which can resonate with young people. The Overton Window may have swung left but socialists cannot claim total victory. It remains to be seen whether ‘capitalist’ can make a comeback.


Written by Kieran Neild-Ali

Kieran Neild-Ali is Communications & Marketing Assistant at the Institute of Economic Affairs

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