Secret CEO: Who are we talking to?

In this anon post, an SU CEO reflects on who we’re talking to and the language and tone we use

Opinium and the Social Market Foundation recently published a major study of over 2,000 adults exploring the new “centre ground” of British politics. I think this this type of research is often very interesting in itself, but this piece even more so because it gives us information about respondents’ student status. For me this gives a fascinating and uncommon snapshot into the current political views of the students our organisations serve.

The population at large While a large (and rising) proportion of the electorate consider themselves as centrists, views on a number of key issues such as reintroduction of grammar schools are strikingly ‘right-wing’. But this label has lost some value because people of all political persuasions hold these views. What’s more, the same can be said of some traditionally ‘left-wing’ issues like renationalisation of the railways. It appears to a significant extent that traditional left and right have broken down.

The report proposes there are 8 new tribes in British politics which cluster voters around some new key dividing lines: open-closed; optimistic-pessimistic and forbidding-forbearing.

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A quick sweep of each tribe:

(8%) Democratic socialists: Pro-immigration, pro-welfare state, pro-redistribution of wealth, internationalist outlook.

  • 60% Labour : 2% Conservative
  • 85% Remain : 3% Leave
  • 48% Corbyn : 30% Neither : 15% May
  • Mostly middle to upper classes living in urban areas or in Scotland and Wales.
  • 60% female
  • 66% middle to upper class : 34% working class
  • Supportive of: staying in single market after Brexit, progressive taxation
  • Against: NHS privatisation, reducing net migration

(5%) Community: Redistribution of wealth, scepticism of business and capitalism. More closed off view of Britain and broadly anti-immigration. Describe themselves as centrists.

  • 50% Labour : 12% Conservative
  • 47% Remain : 39% Leave
  • 36% Corbyn : 26% May
  • The working class in Northern England and the Midlands
  • 59% female
  • Supportive of: banning zero-hours contracts, reducing net migration
  • Against: NHS privatisation, building nuclear power plants

(11%) Progressives: Open, internationalist and inclusive view of Britain, comfortable with immigration. Belief in the welfare state, balanced view towards tax and the economy.

  • 50% Labour : 22% Conservative
  • 74% Remain : 12% Leave
  • 43% May : 24% Neither : 19% Corbyn
  • A scattering of professional groups across the UK
  • 55% female
  • 63% middle to upper class : 37% working class
  • Quite high employment
  • Supportive of: staying in single market post Brexit, progressive taxation, mansion tax
  • Against: NHS privatisation, grammar schools

(7%) Swing voters: Mixture of views. Support an equal, multicultural society, internationalist outlook, hard stance on benefits, support a low tax economy. Describe themselves as centrists.

  • 37% Conservative : 33% Labour
  • 51% Remain : 31% Leave
  • High numbers (17% – 21%) do not vote
  • 51% May : 19% Corbyn
  • A scattering of demographic groups spread across England outside of the capital
  • 61% female
  • Supportive of: banning zero hours contracts; benefits claimants to do compulsory work; mansion tax; progressive taxation; government should grow the economy and provide public services
  • No strong opposition to any policies

(6%) New Britain: Open capitalist economy, pro-immigration, pro-single market, supportive of a low tax economy. Business friendly, internationalist, compassionate view of society.

  • 56% Conservative : 32% Other/Did not vote
  • 66% Remain : 26% Leave
  • 53% May : 24% Corbyn
  • Younger successful professionals, many of them managerial, living in London
  • 62% Male
  • Supportive of: deficit reduction, low tax, NHS privatisation, staying in single market after Brexit
  • Against: progressive taxation, re-nationalising the railways

(7%) Free Liberals: Strong faith in the market, little interest in socially conservative ideas. Strongly pro-business, the most opposed to the welfare state. The most personally optimistic. Describe themselves as right-wing.

  • 58% Conservative : 27% Labour
  • 62: Remain : 32% Leave
  • 61% May : 22% Corbyn
  • Young, mainly male, professionals living in London
  • 79% Male
  • 75% middle-upper class
  • Supportive of: benefits claimants to do compulsory work, NHS privatisation, deficit reduction, building new nuclear plants
  • Against: re-nationalising the railways

(26%) Common sense: Don’t think of themselves as having particularly strong political opinions, despite supporting similar policies to the ‘Our Britain’ segment. Clear preference for low tax economy, opposition to immigration.

  • 62% Conservative : 15% Labour : 13% UKIP
  • 59% Leave : 34% Remain
  • 71% May : 17% Neither : 5% Corbyn
  • Older Southern Englanders, either advanced in their careers or retirees
  • 53% Female
  • Supportive of: reducing net migration, benefits claimants to do compulsory work, changing human rights law, new grammar schools
  • Against: staying in single market after Brexit, proportional representation

(24%) Our Britain: Closed perception of what Britishness is. Anti-immigration, government should put Brits first at all costs, broadly isolationist in outlook. Describe themselves as centrists.

  • 38% Conservative : 37% UKIP : 19% Labour
  • 80% Leave : 11% Remain
  • 59% May : 24% Neither : 7% Corbyn
  • The older working class and retirees, living mainly in Northern England and the Midlands.
  • 52% Female
  • Supportive of: reducing net migration, changing human rights law, benefits claimants to do compulsory work, banning zero-hours contracts
  • Against: staying in single market after Brexit, NHS privatisation

A fuller picture can be seen on the Opinium website.

Students Here’s the picture of the proportion of students in each tribe.

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Students are clearly a different balance to the UK population, with significantly less of the Common Sense and Our Britain tribes so dominant in the population overall.

But for students’ unions the work sets out a real challenge to our status quo. Realistically, our usual priorities, language and way of talking about the world tends to exists on the far left fringes of this landscape. At best, the way that lots of unions like mine think and communicate will only resonate with the Democratic Socialists and maybe the left-leaning Progressives. How often do we entertain the thought that our students might be anti-immigration or against the welfare state? How many officers and staff in SUs are really able to understand the worldviews of the Community, Swing Voters and New Britain tribes? Let alone the Common Sense and Our Britain tribes in the electorate majority?

This is not to say that our values are misplaced, nor that we should stop trying to change attitudes through our work. This is just to say we shouldn’t be surprised when swathes of students look curiously into our bubble, and the language of solidarity, boycott and liberation and raise an eyebrow (or a disaffiliation referendum, as the case may be). And perhaps more importantly, if one of our conclusions post Brexit was that we have forgotten how to talk to “the 52%”, maybe that re-engagement process has to start not out in the community but on campus.

Posted in Secret CEO.

2 Comments

  1. Surely SU’s should be forums that encourage challenge and debate, rather than trying to steer students towards the left. If SU democracy is effective the leaders who emerge will be representative of students’ views. If SUs consistently elect leaders who are far to the left of their membership then they are doing it wrong.

  2. I enjoyed this piece and have been thinking about it considerably today. Thanks to author.

    I would build upon Greg’s comment with two points –

    1) the research above presents the disintegration of traditional left and right, and how the vacuum is being filled with increasing individualism, isolationism and distaste for public ownership. Our own individual politics aside as staff and officers, I’m not confident students’ unions can actually survive in that kind of world.

    We are inherently collectivist organisations, built on some faith that students working together and leading their own services and representation is slightly important to the world. Modern students’ unions are also blessed with a massive licence to operate which stems from perceptions we are, in some way, helpful to education and society at large.

    Consider that how you will but in my mind it means we need to think twice before aspiring to facilitating ‘apolitical’ or values-neutral debates. Because they’re a mirage. This is no longer about left and right. We now live in a world increasingly dominated by ideologies opposed to the very existence of organisations like ours. Just on Wednesday Theresa May stood in PMQs and lamented that students’ unions are holding back the economy (a Cardinal sin) so this is crunch time. Now is not the time to shy away from building support for our core philosophies of mutual support and collectivism. I do take away from this article the scale of the mountain to climb in this regard though.

    2) my second point is this tribes stuff is probably more applicable to what’s going on in and around the NUS currently. It seems to me that students’ unions just have a better grip of where students are, which is arguably why we have seen the rise of the ‘personal development/student experience/employability’ narratives as a way of explaining our value to a more individualistic cohort of students. This has pros and cons – definitely a debate for another time. The question now is at what point is the NUS out of step with students? At what point is it damaging students’ unions? and if so, what happens next?

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