24 April 2015

Why are so many British students voting Green?


A quarter of students are planning to vote Green on May 7th.

That should have been the headline of yesterday’s Tab article (actual headline: The Tories are the most popular political party at half of the country’s best unis). Because the fact that the Labour and Conservatives do equally well among British final year students, with 31% of the vote each, really isn’t the story, not when the BBC’s latest poll puts both parties at a very similar 34%. The Greens, meanwhile, are polling nationally at a mere 5%.

What makes Natalie Bennett’s party 5 times more popular among students, who supposedly represent Britain’s brightest, than among the rest of the population?

Toby Young at the Spectator has been wondering that too. He’s looked at the Greens’ state-funding extravaganza of a manifesto, which would increase public expenditure by £177 billion a year by 2020, supposedly all through tax increases (never mind that raising taxes doesn’t necessarily raise revenue). Having considered all the extra taxes on unhealthy food, air travel, corporations, and net wealth, Young had assumed “that these people were complete nutjobs, but I sat next to a level-headed Oxford graduate at a dinner party the other day who told me she was a member of the party. If level-headed Oxford graduates are voting Green, what hope is there?”

This is a great way to explain away the phenomenon without actually looking into it, a classic case of “This is a stupid idea, so anyone who believes it must be stupid by definition”. While some readers might have sympathy with Young’s assessment, it doesn’t actually get us very far. In fact, it’s probably making the problem worse.

There’s a wonderful quote from Aaron Sorkin’s timeless political series The West Wing which sums this up beautifully:

C.J. Cregg: Everybody’s stupid in an election year, Charlie.
Charlie Young: No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year, C.J.

Politicians like to treat voters like they’re all short-sighted, self-centred, and easily swayed by gimmicks rather than policies. And maybe they have a point. But no one gets talked down to like young people. We are Generation Apathy, apparently, a cohort too obsessed with snapchatting and intragramming to pay any attention to the world around us. The reason we don’t join political parties like our parents did is because we don’t care (not because we’re more invested in issues than ideology or anything as sensible as that).

Maybe, just maybe, being constantly insulted, underestimated and ignored by mainstream politicians might have something to do with why students are more open to Green policies?

At this point, let me point out that most of the Green’s manifesto is an economic nightmare. Some highlights from Ed West’s Spectator article:

  • Under Green plans, inheritance tax – “to prevent the accumulation of wealth and power by a privileged class” – will no longer just tax the dead.
  • Under radical reforms, it will cover gifts made while the giver is still alive – raising the prospect of levies on cars, jewellery or furniture given by parents to their children.
  • New resource taxes would apply to wood, metal and minerals, and steeper levies imposed on cars.
  • Crucially, import taxes will be levied on goods brought to Britain reflecting the “ecological impact” of making them – with tariffs reintroduced for trade between Britain and the rest of Europe, ending the free trade bloc.

No trade, no gifts, punitive taxes, more expensive goods (includes staples like food and clothing), and an anti-globalisation agenda which will dramatically reduce UK jobs, especially in high-end professional industries where top students tend to end up (banking, marketing, consulting etc.). In economic terms, it would seem like 25% students have gone mad and decided to vote against their interests.

But what else are the Greens offering? For one thing, decriminalising possession of Class A and B drugs for personal use – something which libertarians and social liberals alike should be pushing for. But in 2009, the government’s chief drug advisor was immediately sacked for pointing out, with sound scientific research to back him up, that ecstasy, LSD and marijuana were less harmful than alcohol and should be legalised. The last Labour government refused to even acknowledge such findings, and the current government hasn’t moved an inch on personal drug use either.

Then there’s the policy of legalising sex work, which destigmatises sex workers and makes the whole situation safer for workers and clients alike. (Did you know that 1 in 4 students consider sex work to pay them through university, or that 5% have worked in the sex industry?) Again, a liberal, pro-business policy that would make our society healthier and reduce police and prison costs, that no other party is even mentioning.

That’s on top of scrapping tuition fees, of course (a policy turn-around Nick Clegg will pay for in this election), more government funding for research, and reducing the defence budget for foreign wars that (some argue) do more harm than good. And, of course, the dream of an environmentally sustainable future. Whatever your position on climate change, it’s a simple fact that anything that does happen will affect the younger generations more dramatically, so it makes sense that environmental policies are more appealing to those who might actually suffer the consequences than those who will be safely dead by the time anything bad happens.

What are the other parties offering? Pension rewards (never mind that young people are currently paying for the pensions of others when everyone knows full well we won’t receive any benefit ourselves), better schools and more school choice (even though it’s going to be years before we can afford to have our own children), and government help to save for a property (despite the fact that the current cohort of students will struggle to find a job that pays enough to rent privately, let alone save up to buy).

And the politicians, from all major parties, have the audacity to pretend young people are too asleep to have noticed any of that. As Hannah Jane Parkinson from the Guardian puts it:

“Don’t patronise us. You think we haven’t noticed the Tory plan to strip housing benefit and jobseeker’s allowance for 18-21 year olds? You think we haven’t realised that Cameron has oddly tried to sell pension changes as a policy for young people because we all want “our grandparents to be treated decently”? Give us a break. No, seriously. Give us an actual break.”

So yes, the Green party’s economic policies are a disaster. Yes, they want to fundamentally change 21st century life and put a stop to globalisation and technology. And yes, their manifesto reads a little bit like it should end with “And then we will all live in a magical land of unicorns and survive on faerie dust and moonbeams”.

But show me another party that not only offers progressive social policy, but actively acknowledges that young people might have different (and equally valid) priorities to their grandparents. If the Greens are offering a fantasy, it’s no more disingenuous than the fantasy that other parties care about young people for their own votes, rather than the votes of their parents.

Want to dismiss 25% of students as too stupid to know what’s best for them? Go ahead. You’ll only be making them more convinced.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.