Last week, substantial protests by students at Warwick University resulted in the postponing of a talk by Anne Marie Waters, the leader of For Britain, an openly anti-Islam party. Once we move beyond the irony of the fact that a speaker event titled “Culture, Politics and Free Speech” was shut down by activists, a huge problem for the left reveals itself.
Protesting Waters and her visit is perfectly understandable. This is the woman who claimed that the “only evil that Britain had legalised was Islam”. However, the efforts from campus liberation groups to close down debate is symptomatic of young metropolitan socialists who are completely disconnected from the concerns of older left-leaning supporters.
In reaction to the planned talk, the university’s labour society helped to organise a “Far Right Off Campus” protest. The society had no intention of letting the actual event occur, and did everything they could to silence the speaker. This is hardly surprising, given that two-thirds of British students support a no-platforming policy, whereby universities are able to prevent external speakers from coming to campus. This shift in attitudes towards the free discussion of ideas demonstrates a realignment of political values that is creating conflict within the left.
The demographics of supporters of left-wing parties has shifted massively. Polling shows that traditional British Labour supporters were far more likely to come from a working-class background, as well as being less likely to have a university education.
In an increasingly globalised world, centre-left parties across Europe gradually abandoned their socialist ideals and embraced the notion of “capitalism with a conscience”. For example, former UK prime minister Tony Blair removed Clause IV, a rule that committed to mass nationalisation, from Labour’s constitution.
Committing to an integrated world that admired multiculturalism won centre-left parties many plaudits. French economist Thomas Piketty highlights how left-wing parties in the US, France and Britain are now made up largely of university educated voters.
Opinium call these supporters “democratic socialists”. They are young, well-educated, and usually living in far more affluent parts of the country. They tend to see themselves as global citizens, they are socially liberal and believe in large government intervention. Furthermore, the Economist found that only 46 per cent18-21-year-olds thought that people should have the right to non-violent free speech if it offends people. In the US and Britain, the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn movements have been driven by these people with these values.
Despite this, the problem is that traditional left-wing supporters do not always share their admiration of being a citizen of the world. Globalisation has resulted in a meta-political shift, with the left-right divide becoming defined by cultural attitudes rather than economic. Many feel, for example, that national identity is under threat. The notion that masculinity is being ebbed away in a feminised world has enabled the likes of Jordan Peterson to become a global phenomenon.
As a result of this, the traditional core of the Western left would now be defined as culturally conservative. Indeed, one-third of Labour members voted to leave in the EU referendum, which was a vote largely to regain complete border control and a sense of British identity. But, crucially, these people feel that freedom of speech is being curbed.
And these sharp concerns regarding multiculturalism are shared by Waters, who herself was a former Labour Party member. Last year, Sarah Champion was forced to resign from the shadow cabinet after criticising police for being afraid to investigate British Pakistani gangs, following a series of grooming scandals. Increasing frustration among traditional supporters with such fast-paced cultural evolution is polarising them from the younger generation surging into left-wing parties.
Across the West, the social democratic left has, therefore, lost power, with voters flocking to parties that see the nation-state as the key to achieving social progress. When you break down the statistics surrounding which voters are being lost, the findings are even more worrying. According to a British Election Internet Panel Study, 47 per cent of the voters that the British Labour Party lost to the Conservatives from 2005 to 2017 identified as having a “working-class” identity, and 63 per cent felt a strong English identity. Similarly, the far-right AfD party in Germany is now the second most popular party, at the expense of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
So, if socialist parties want to achieve power, they must be able to provide a vision with undertones of civic nationalism, while not compromising their quest for justice. It is very easy for university students to forget that not everybody is as open to new ideas as them. And pretending that the likes of Tommy Robinson and Anne Marie Waters haven’t appealed to a worrying amount of people doesn’t make fascism go away. If the philosophy underpinning young socialist movements doesn’t try to make amends with their traditional support, they will face electoral oblivion.