Published by The Telegraph on 02/03/17
If you dare to walk onto a university campus, you better prepare yourself. Flags bearing the stern face of Lenin drape from windows. Reincarnated soldiers of the Red Army patrol the corridors. The harmonic chime of ‘The Red Flag’ hangs in the air.
Yes, according to a ground-breaking study by the Adam Smith Institute, eight out of ten UK universities are ‘left-wing’.
As a result, the ASI bemoans the torments that right-wing students are forced to endure. It warns that universities ‘are liable to become afflicted by group think’ where if you dare to speak out, ‘dissenting opinions are neutralised.’ Instead of worrying if their tie is the right shade of blue, today’s conservative students face an onslaught of ‘ideological homogeneity’.
The claim that most students and academics are Lefties is hardly surprising. And initially it does seem that universities have an aversion to conservative views. At Sussex University a few weeks ago, academics felt the need to hold a workshop to ‘deal with right-wing attitudes in the classroom’. This followed Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings, which revealed that 20 universities now ban certain newspapers. Unsurprisingly, The Guardian was left unscathed. It was right-wing tabloids that were vilified.
Given that a significant proportion of student unions are now dominated by self-revered lefties, this isn’t too surprising. Stroll into a student union office and there’s a good chance you’ll be asked which of your tattoos of Jezza most speaks to you. And while the NUS has certainly garnered a reputation for anti-Semitism, take a glance at one of their conferences and it becomes clear it is just a kindergarten for Momentum. All this seems to justify ASI’s warnings, right?
Well, not quite. The assumption that students share the political views of their officers forgets that SUs and their overlord – the NUS – are entirely unrepresentative of the people they claim to represent. In UCL’s union elections last year, only 12% of the study body bothered to vote. In 2015 at the University of Manchester, turnout reached a national record of around 25%. Hardly a resounding victory for democracy.
Indeed, contrary to the claim that students spend their time printing off topless calendars of Jeremy Corbyn, research carried out by the Universities of Southampton and Sheffield revealed that today’s young people are more right-wing and authoritarian than any generation in recent history.
And even if students did support their student unions, the increasingly warped regard for genuine left-wing politics by union officers makes it hard to label their cause as truly left-wing. In an attempt to demonstrate their leftie credentials, ‘working class officers’ have been created at Manchester, Soas, King’s College London, and St Hilda’s, Oxford to ensure working class students don’t feel marginalised.
This demonstrates just how far today’s student Left has wandered from the barricades manned by its predecessors. Back in Paris in 1968, student activists took to the streets in a genuine attempt to overthrow capitalism. Today’s self-labelled ‘lefties’ are more concerned with fighting for Meat Free Mondays. Rather than uphold the power of the proletariat, student union officers view their working class peers as vulnerable creatures who need protecting. Marx’s claim that ‘workingmen have nothing to lose but their chains’ no longer resonates. Today’s campus warriors just want to make the chains are a bit more comfortable.
In addition to ASI’s claim that universities are overrun by the Left, its suggestion that the Right are the sole victims of campus intolerance is also misguided. While left-wing students are certainly prone to the occasional trigger warning and safe space, right-wing students are equally eager to devise their own echo chambers. By using intolerant online forums, an increasing number of conservative students seek to create their very own safe spaces . Perhaps they take their lead from our Conservative Prime Minister whose Prevent Strategy seeks to promote a UK-wide safe space.
Across the Atlantic, the right’s intolerance to free speech is more crystallised. Following the election of President Trump, not all the tears shed on university campuses came from Clinton supporters. Feeling unsafe at university, a number of Trump supporters asked colleges to do more to protect their political views. Essentially, they demanded their very own safe spaces. And this sentiment informs the message behind ASI’s report: that right-wing students are vulnerable and need protecting.
It is becoming increasingly clear that campus intolerance now transcends the political spectrum. But a serious treatment of politics requires that opposing views are constantly challenged and debated. Crudely labelling campus intolerance as a problem of the Left, as ASI does, forgets close-mindedness has become normalised in both political camps. And sadly, this spells bad news for progressive politics. Because there is nothing less progressive than an ideologue with a finger in his ears.