Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Thatcher’s children

Posted by Left Luggage on May 12, 2009

News of students occupying universities across the UK in protest at Israeli atrocities prompted some on the Left to proclaim young people as a new revolutionary force in Britain. This assessment is in part wishful thinking, since if it was accurate, the disproportionate amount of time the Left spends on recruiting and organising students would have some justification.

It is undoubtedly true that there has been an upsurge in student activism around international issues. Many of the school students who walked out of classes in opposition to the 2003 Iraq War are now at university, and their radicalism has not diminished. Any conclusions about a general left-wards shift on the part of the young should be resisted, however. There are no signs that the Gaza campaign will develop into a broader progressive movement. Indeed, research from 2008 shows that students are more likely to express support for the Conservatives than for Labour. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since due to Britain’s inegalitarian education system, university students are disproportionately middle class.

Therein lies the rub. All the talk on the Left about the radicalism of the young is really about the limited radicalism of young, middle class students. What of the working class young people who do not end up going to university, or who are among the 22% of students who fail to complete their university courses? Almost all the articles on working class young people from the Socialist Worker newspaper focus on media demonisation of youth, and the failure of government to meet young people’s needs on education and crime. The following passage, from an article about youth crime, is typical:

Poor education, poverty, inequality, poor life prospects and decimation of local services – these are the conditions in which many of our young people are living and which create the conditions for some to turn to crime and violence.

Working class young people are cast as passive victims without agency. The political views of working class youth, and the way they see themselves and their society, are neglected. If the Left is to have any hope of building support for its politics in the future, it needs to get to grips with the worldview of young people growing up in communities devastated by Thatcherism.

The kids I work with are predominantly from working class backgrounds. Most have parents employed in routine clerical or manual occupations, though a substantial minority come from families where neither parent works. Some are the children of immigrants who, due to lack of job opportunities or their own refusal to accept poverty pay, have set themselves up as self-employed – often in the “black” economy. Over 90% are non-white: Bengalis, West Africans and Caribbeans are the largest ethnic groups. Nearly all are classified as from “socially deprived” backgrounds. They should be part of the target market for Left groups, but very few have any awareness of socialism or progressive politics. Last month, anti-capitalist demonstrators descended on the Excel Exhibition Centre, round the corner from the College where I work. The students viewed the protests with a mixture of curiosity, amusement and indifference, but seemed to feel no sense of identification with the protestors.

Many of my students are highly ambitious – often ludicrously so. Kids with four GCSEs who have trouble reading and writing announce their plans to become corporate lawyers, doctors and businesspeople. I’m often reminded of Delboy from Only Fools and Horses and his reassuring words to a sceptical younger brother: “this time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires!” As with Delboy, the bravado often masks deep insecurities. Through their time in education, a gap grows between their ambitions and their ability to achieve them. The more distant the prospect of educational success becomes, the more they cling to the fantasy of future wealth. Many give up on tasks after the tiniest set back, afraid to grapple with the problem in case the effort makes the anticipated failure more painful. It is common for kids to mock and take delight in the failure of others, as this provides a welcome distraction from their own inadequacies. Many of them refuse to take responsibility for their actions when they experience failure, since to do so would force them to address their weaknesses.

The kids I work with generally reject the idea that anyone could be motivated by altruism or any non-material concerns, and assume people are naturally selfish. They are keenly aware of their own “rights” but often dismissive of the rights of others. The vast majority of students in every class I have taught favour much harsher restrictions on the rights of immigrants, despite the fact that they are generally the descendents of immigrants themselves. They generally accept the view of British society as meritocratic. While most acknowledge the existence of class as a social fact, they do not see it as a structural barrier to material success. Instead of structural explanations, there is widespread support for “conspiracy theory” views of the world, with the Jews or the Freemasons cast as evil masterminds controlling events.

It isn’t hard to imagine the political views that flow from these assumptions about human nature and British society. My students tend to support the neoliberal model of “tolerance”, insisting upon the right of others to pursue their own self interest. On economics, most are firmly opposed to progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth: Tory proposals to raise the inheritance tax threshold and reverse Labour’s increase in the top rate of tax are popular. If I point out to my students that such taxes affect a tiny minority of the population, the response is that they might be in that tiny minority before too long. Most of my students support harsh, authoritarian policies on law and order, and blame crime on individual criminals rather than social factors.

In short, the majority of the working class young people I work with seem to have accepted Thatcherite principles and assumptions in full. There is no society; only competing and ruthless individuals. Collectivism is a doomed endeavour, since people are bound by nature to seek their own benefit at the expense of others. It is easy to move up through the class system, and anyone can “get to the top” with the requisite hard work. People are entitled to the fruits of their labour and have no obligation to give up any of their money in the form of redistributive taxes.

Of course, the picture is far more complex and nuanced than the one I have sketched. In their personal dealings with others, for instance, most of my students amply demonstrate the altruism they deny exists. It is also true that my students do not constitute a representative cross section of British society. Since many are the children of recent immigrants, they do not have the ingrained awareness of class that indigenous British people often do. Those whose parents are self employed are perhaps less likely to be sensitive to class than those whose parents are workers.

Most importantly, they are just kids with no experience of the world of full time work. Once they leave college or university, they are bound to come up against the realities of a deeply unequal and unfair society and their views will surely change. However, the direction of that change is by no means pre-ordained. Someone who has always believed that society is meritocratic will not necessarily abandon that belief once they find themselves unemployed or in a low paid, unsatisfying job. In the absence of a socialist political culture, they are as likely to blame their situation on Eastern European immigrants and cartels of Jewish bankers as they are to point the finger at an exploitative economic system. The evidence is that young people do have reactionary views on a number of issues. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2007 showed that young people were less concerned with economic inequalities and much less supportive of policies to redistribute wealth than older respondents. Indeed, it would be surprising if decades of neoliberal social polices, designed in part to weaken social solidarity and support for collectivism, were not successful in altering the views of those who have grown up under them.

A good way to begin to tackle some of these problems would be to set up community organisations to involve working class young people in activities that prove that altruism and collectivism are possible. The left-leaning Kurdish / Turkish youth organisation DayMer runs a number of such activities for kids in East London, including sports activities and trips away. This approach should not be confused with the left-liberal stance that working class young people are simply bored and do not have enough to do. Of course the dearth of youth and community facilities is something that should be addressed as a matter of urgency, but unless there are community organisations that facilitate activities that engage young people in self-sacrifice and teamwork, attitudes are unlikely to change.

The Left should also build on the elements of the views of working class young people that have progressive potential. Ideas about personal responsibility should be nurtured rather than dismissed as reactionary. For instance, any approach to crime that is seen to absolve criminals of responsibility for their actions is unlikely to gain many adherents among working class youth. Ideas about hard work can also be progressive, but the need to work hard for others as well as to fulfil personal potential should be stressed. Similarly, we should not argue against seeking “success”, but should try to broaden the notion of success to include non-material and intrinsic goals.

Romantic notions of young people as a revolutionary force are wide of the mark at present. In fact, unless community and political organisations can successfully intervene, it seems likely that the Left will have an even harder job recruiting and organising in the working class communities of the future than they have today.


12 Responses to “Thatcher’s children”

  1. greenman said

    Good article.
    I work with 13-19 year olds in the Midlands, and I have to say the views and attitudes of these young people is very similar. This despite the fact that the majority of the young people I work with are working class white youth. The differences are as you say, a slightly keener sense of class and significantly more modest ambition – where that exists. In young people from families with no-one working, or even generational unemployment, or families where the only work is casual or in the “informal economy” the sense of lack of hope or ambition is even greater.
    The picture on racism is mixed. Whilst the white youth I work with would largely echo the views of those from London regarding immigration, and whilst there is a good deal of casual racism, many of the youth are very keen on Black popular culture, particularly the music scene and sometimes affect “gansta” attitudes. This links quite openly with their view of themselves (however accurate or inaccurate this might seem to outsiders) as similarly disadvantaged and rebellious to youth from the “Projects” of big American cities or non-white inner city kids from the UK. Of course, with the “gangsta” attiudes come some attitudes towards females and minorities that stink and a stance of dog-eat-dog aggressive competition. Some white youth reject this and a minority are drawn towards the BNP and fascist attitudes – but this seems mainly to come (in my experience) from the influence of parents and older relatives. Amongst the female working class young people I work with the dynamic is similar – but generally the females appear to have more realistic hope and ambition, perhaps due to the structure of the British economy now being far more dominated by service industry jobs that have traditionally been associated with female workers.
    Sport is one of the areas which illustrates the contradictions – it can encourage (e.g. football teams etc) unity and solidarity and teamwork, but is also an area where the lifestyles and arrogance of super rich football stars are idolised and envied.
    I agree that there are potential ways forward, and also that working with young people outside the middle class student milieu is an eye-opener to the real political and social dynamics happening on the ground.

    • Hi Greeman,

      Thanks for the comment. It’s interesting to hear the similarities and differences between your experiences with white working class youth and my own with largely non-white kids.

      The gangster culture is certainly a huge feature down here with the boys. A few are actually involved in gang violence, but even those who aren’t aspire to what they imagine is a glamourous gangster lifestyle.

      Left Luggage

  2. ibs said

    This is a great article; there’s no more absurd leftist slogan than ‘student power’ and the SWP’s pronouncements say far more about the membership of their organisation than political reality. Although the occupations in solidarity with Gaza produced some impressive results, such as scholarships for Palestinian students, the momentum seems to have fizzled out and, of course, it never caught on in most universities, nor did it attract the support of the majority of students on the campuses where occupations did take place.

    The one thing I disagreed with is the notion that “Since many are the children of recent immigrants, they do not have the ingrained awareness of class that indigenous British people often do.” It’s common to disregard or overlook class positions within immigrant and minority communities as liberal opinion tend to group ‘Muslims’ or ‘Blacks’ all together, but in my experience, class differences in one’s country of birth or ancestry are often replicated in immigrant communities.

    • Hi Ibs,

      Thanks for the comment. There’s no doubt some truth in your point about people from immigrant backgrounds importing their ideas about class. The thing with Bengali and West African kids, is that a lot of them come from peasant families, rather than working class backgrounds as such. Perhaps this makes them more disposed towards conspiracy theory views of the world rather than structural, class based explanations.

      Left Luggage

  3. Duncan said

    There are no signs that the Gaza campaign will develop into a broader progressive movement. Indeed, research from 2008 shows that students are more likely to express support for the Conservatives than for Labour. Perhaps this isn’t surprising

    In fact, you could even seen this as reassuring. One of the fundamentals of Marxism, the bit positing an explanatory link between class position and political outlook, operating as expected!

    Without having any firm supporting evidence at hand, such as reports on the social and political opininons of young people in previous years, I would argue that anecdotal evidence suggests that the discrepany between the policy preferences of young and old respondents is explained by their difference in age and life experience not a cohort/generational effect.

    The significant factor is the one you identify in this post: these are kids who have no experience of full time work. To use one extreme anecdotal example in support of this I remember one lad in the same class as me who asked me once, in all seriousness, why Tony Blair didn’t just ban ‘Pakis and gays’ by law. This was when he was 15. A few years later I bumped into him in a pub and told me he was no longer racist as he’d spent the intervening period working in a factory alongside Eastern European migrants.

    • Hi Duncan,

      Good point about how experience can change poltical attitudes. I do think, though, that the ideas that kids develop during their formative years impact on how they see the world as adults. There’s certainly no guarantee that kids with racist attitudes will change their views once they start to work alongside people from other backgrounds, for instance. It’s worth pointing out that a lot of the kids I work with will end up in non-unionised occupations.

      Left Luggage

  4. Adamski said

    Just heard that a small group of students have gone into occupation at London Met University days after it was rocked by a strike against massive cuts by staff:

    Would students have occupied over economic bread & butter issues if it wasn’t for the Gaza occupations? Can we see how links can be made between students and workers? Of course, because of the social position of students outside the workplace, only studying for 3 years, long holidays away from campus, student movements can emerge quickly and then subside leading little in their wake. But I think that the student occupations are part of a wider movement that is still emerging. And we are seeing this weird kinda set up in the credit crunch where disparate movements are rebounding off each other. Our job as activists is to use whatever platform we can to link these disparate movements and raise awareness of them.

    It is a bit patronising to refer to all students as middle class. Students are also not isolated from the credit crunch with courses being axed, lecturers laid off, discovering that the part-time jobs they use to fund their studies are no longer available, the thousands of new graduates who in the next two months will face life on the dole.

    The occupations were small (though not always, Manchester University won official backing from the student body at a massive emergency general meeting and saw over 1000 involved), but they were important because they were the first time that this kinda action had taken place in a long time & open the door to more militant action.

    They have been followed by a wave of factory occupations (in Dundee, students involved in Gaza solidarity including the President of the University Islamic Society built support for the Prisme Factory occupation leading to a local mosque providing food for occupiers.) Incidentally, the Muslim solidarity to factory occupiers in Dundee is a good thing to cite when talking to Muslim activists to influence them towards socialist politics. It is also very easy to get students who occupied over Gaza to support workers occupying to save jobs and communities.

    This is a kind of snowballing effect where the tactic of occupation has spread – first seen with the occupation of lecture theatres, and two-hour occupations of BBC offices over Gaza. Then factory occupations have been seen. Also the spread of school occupations in Lambeth, Glasgow and Greenwich.

    Finally, I am reminded of the infamous sociologist who interviewed workers at a car-plant and found that there was no signs of militancy or class conscious in the late 60s. A year later, thousands of the car workers were on strike, occupying and blockading the managers office singing the internationale and yelling ‘string him up’.

    The flaw in the sociologist’s analysis was that he just took a surface look at workers consciousness, not seeing how the contradictions in the economy were leading to stuff bubling under the surface that would be explosive.

    • Hi Adamski,

      I can’t say I share your assessment here. The comment about the sociologist in the 1960s ignores the fundamental changes that have taken place in the UK since the 70s. The whole point of the article is that there is a very different political culture now than in the 60s, and nothing illustrates the difference in political culture better than a conversation about politics with one of the young people I wrote about.

      The implication of your final comment is that – despite all evidence to the contrary – young working class people might suddenly become attracted to revolutionary politics. It may be true that there are “contradictions in the economy”, but there is no guarantee that this will lead to an increase in radicalism. In the US, with higher levels of inequality and exploitation than more or less any other industrial nation, workers seem to be turning to the Right rather than the Left. History shows that fascism as well as socialism can benefit from economic crisis.

      If the case of the workers and the sociologist you cite is real, I’m sure the the strike you refer to did not just happen from nowhere. It would have been organised by militant shop stewards, among a unionised workforce and in the context of a left wing political culture. None of these elements are present today.

      On student activism – the news of the London Met occupation is of course welcome, but talk of links between students and workers is little far fetched. As the study I cited shows, the majority of students are fairly right wing on economic issues and liberal on social issues, hence the high level of support for the Liberal Democrats. The picture for, say, manual workers is more mixed, but clearly there is growth in support for the BNP in some working class areas.

      They may be a growth in student activism (this is not denied), but I can’t see how this would feed into any growth in militancy among the working class.

      Left Luggage

  5. c0mmunard said

    This is a very good article, though I also have some sympathy with what Adamski says – i.e. that student activity can have significance when it relates to broader class struggles, rather than taking place on the isolated terrai which it generally does in the UK. I think that can be seen looking at the upsurges 68-69 in France and Italy in particular, both of which were ignited by students, even if they were predominantly carried out by workers. Anyway, I’ve sent you an email asking if we can republish the article.

    In terms of the political role of working class, non-white, recent immigrant youth, readers might be interested in this documentary film, Kala Tara (Black Star) about the Asian Youth Movement:


    I think it’s very inspiring, and poses alot of important questions… including – why isn’t there such a movement today?

  6. modernityblog said

    Thoughtful post,

    I think the debate concerning students as perceived as middle-class is misplaced, modern capitalist society places a premium on holding a degree, performing many jobs without a degree is near impossible. There is a middle-class closed shop.

    You know that, and we, the working classes without pieces of paper, know that too.

    We realize that life is stacked against us and without pushy or middle-class parents, plenty of luck or immense determination then achieving something, some first step within graduate education is next to impossible.

    No matter what we do, class is always with us, we are seen for our class, treated as a class apart, without pretty bits of paper, degrees, so it is obvious that class consciousness will exist, that is part of our way of thinking.

    How that ultimately manifests itself varies, but class consciousness doesn’t go away, and that is why many middle-class ex-students find it so difficult to relate, too conversed with and treat the working class as equals, instead were often treated as specimens, like an exotic brand of frog or reptile, talked about, prodded occasionally, but invariably talked down to.

    That’s probably why, in part, the British Left hasn’t been terribly successful, because unless it connects to people’s existence, people’s experience and treat them as valid as their own comparatively pampered upbringing’s then they won’t connect, won’t be able to involve people for any duration and are left to fall back on their standard method of recruitment, Fresher’s week.

    I suspect that lots of the British Left doesn’t realise much of this, as self-awareness and critical thinking are almost completely lacking in the remnants that we find today, but I’m glad that Left Luggage (and a few others) can see some of these problems.

  7. Adamski said

    Camp Against Cuts

    “Students from the University of Sussex have been camped outside the main administration building since Thursday night in protest against the cutting of the linguistics course, the lack of democracy in university decision making and the ongoing marketisation of education.”

    • Thanks for the link, Adamski. How do you think this fits in with the issues discussed in the article? I don’t believe there’s any denial that there is an increased level of radicalism among students. The news from Sussex, like that from London met, is evidence of that. But how much does that tell us about the attitudes and perspectives of the majority of young people, who don’t enter higher education?

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