BBC News

Are ageing lefties in denial?

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

image captionStudent anarchist to Tory MP... a natural progression?

A study is being used to support the theory many educated, middle-aged left-wingers are in fact conservatives who can't admit it. Is this true?

It is the cynic's perennial view of youthful idealism: that each student radical will turn sharply to the right once the pay cheques start coming in and the mortgage needs to be paid.

By virtue of this stereotype, we might imagine rabble-rousing undergraduate Rik from 1980s sitcom The Young Ones by now having transmogrified into Tory MP Alan B'stard - an easy enough exercise, given that both men were played by the same actor.

But an academic study has been seized on by centre-right commentators as evidence that this is more than just a cliche.

Champagne socialists

Dr James Rockey, of Leicester University, analysed the stated values of 136,000 people in a survey carried out in 48 countries, and found that the well-educated were most likely to misplace themselves on the political spectrum.

A tendency was observed among this group to identify as left-wing, and vote accordingly, despite holding views on wealth distribution that placed them further to the right, Dr Rockey reported.

In his paper, Dr Rockey suggested that this was due to the fact that "people compare themselves not to the population as a whole but to the people they know" and that "political preferences change over time".

The Daily Telegraph pounced on these findings, proclaiming them as evidence that "many middle-aged 'champagne socialists' fail to notice their views shifting" and have become, despite their left-wing university days, right-wingers who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the fact.

The newspaper's editorial stated that the research proves "the facts of life are, as Margaret Thatcher had it, conservative", and that those who do not face up to this are simply displaying an inversion of the Marxist theory of false consciousness.

Conservative 'coming out'

The journalist Toby Young - who, in his own words, "came out" as a Conservative voter for the first time ahead of the 2010 general election - thinks the Telegraph has a point.

He believes that prime minister David Cameron has been largely successful in "decontaminating" the Tory brand - falling short only among the intelligentsia, who from their university days belonged to social circles that automatically viewed right-wing ideas with contempt.

"As students, most people will have been on the left," he believes.

"With the onset of wisdom, they become more realistic and realise the utopian dreams they had when they were young were impractical. But they have this vision of their younger selves wagging their finger."

However, the writer and long-standing Labour activist John O'Farrell argues that the Leicester study is far from comprehensive enough to back up the thesis.

He admits that his younger self might be dismayed that he now subscribes to Sky TV, and bemoans Guardian journalists who educate their children privately.

Better off?

But he insists that with age comes experience - and the wherewithal to translate egalitarian principles into practical action.

"What this comes down to is that right-wingers don't understand us," he says. "They can see why we're on the left when we're students, but they don't get why we would still want to make the world a better place when we're older and better off.

"But when I was young I used to go on demos, chanting 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out.' Now I'm chairman of the governors of an inner-city comprehensive - and I think I'm doing far more to turn my values into reality."

The left-wing singer-songwriter Billy Bragg agrees, citing the veteran socialist Tony Benn - who started out as a moderate and grew more radical with age - as an example he would like to emulate.

"When you become a father, you realise that everyone is someone's child. As you get older, you worry about who is going to pay for your pension," he says. "It seems that the logic of organised compassion makes more sense to me than ever.

"Yes, I live in a nice house now. But does that mean I'm meant to ignore my mum and all the people I grew up with in Barking? That would be the most hypocritical thing of all."

Left and right may always find themselves set in opposition.

But if each side fails to appreciate what motivates the other, the prospect of achieving any kind of consensus seems remote. Alan and Rik would understand.

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  • University of Leicester

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