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Generation Left: the British student movement ten years on

Last month saw the 10th anniversary of the British student movement, and its symbolic starting point at Millbank Tower. But, in the midst of a new crisis, and with student unrest resurfacing, what can the ultimate failure of the movement teach us today?

Matt Myers 8 December 2020

Generation Left: the British student movement ten years on

The 2010 student movement—whose ten-year anniversary was marked last month—was Britain’s last major student movement. The largest such event for fifty years, it mobilised a cross-class and multi-national coalition of young people across Britain and Northern Ireland in a defence of public education, and the socialisation of its costs through taxation. The warnings of the 2010 protestors may today appear prophetic, even in spite of the failure to realise the movement's immediate aims. Yet, ten years on, the pandemic has exposed the startling mismanagement, bureaucratic inertia, and profit-driven mania which have increasingly characterised UK universities in the wake of the movement’s defeat. As recent occupations and rent strikes at the University of Manchester and other institutions have shown, Britain’s corporate universities expect the continuation of rental-based income, despite the continued assault on student conditions. First year students, disproportionately impacted by interruptions to their exams and the broken promises made by universities, have also seen the closure of the retail and service-sector jobs, further increases in rent and house prices, and reduced social interaction (with major consequences on health and wellbeing) despite their relatively low risk from the disease. Already frozen out of an overwhelmingly financialised economy, and dependent on wage-labour or personal debt, the sacrifices made by the young to help save the lives of the old and vulnerable have been met with further restrictions – rather than an expansion – of their social and economic rights.  

Looking back, 2010 appears more like the end, rather than the beginning, of a new politics. Significantly, the hyper-marketisation of education has undermined the partial autonomy of the student experience from the logic of capital accumulation and rent-seeking. Just as the elite, aristocratic, university before 1945 was concerned with nurturing the ‘pupil’—trained to occupy the upper echelons of the British state and empire—the post-war public education system was organized around the ‘student’—educated to fill the country’s burgeoning white-collar and technical jobs. While the post-war welfare state provided ‘Baby Boomers’ with basic economic rights, the lack of security for the young in 21st century Britain revealed how much ‘youth’ as a transitional social stage between childhood and adulthood depended on this material foundation. Increased indebtedness, rising rents, the normalisation of part-time work, and the oversupply of graduates for the available jobs, has blurred the distinction between the ‘student’ and the wider class of wage earners and renters. The relative weaknesses of a campus-based student movement since 2010 and the self-activity of young people outside the education system through the climate strikes, mass voting drives for the Labour Party in 2017 and 2019, or rent strikes inside as well as outside their places of education, can be explained by the increasingly opaque boundaries between the young, the worker, the renter, and the citizen in an age of interrelated climate, ecological, economic, health, and political crises.

The 2010 student movement in Britain—like Occupy Wall Street in the US—was the first premonition of an approaching political earthquake. Generational voting is just one of the more significant examples of a wider shift in attitudes since. Support for Bernie Sanders and a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party was corelated more to age than any other indicator. At the 2019 British general election, for every 10 years older a voter was, their chance of voting Tory increased by 9 points.[1] During the Democratic Party primaries in 2020, Joe Biden was polling just 3% amongst those under 35 compared to 53% for Bernie Sanders.[2] Back in the 2016 primaries, Sanders gained more votes from the young than Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.[3]

However, there is little evidence to support the emergence of a distinct ‘Generation Left’ outside Britain and the United States. Though Keir Milburn has argued that the young ‘are much more likely to vote Left and hold left-wing views…across the US, the UK and much of Western Europe’, in fact the phenomena is far more nebulous.[4] In both East and West, the young have also been key to the success of the right and far-right. In the first-round of France’s 2017 presidential election, those aged 18-34 gave more first-preferences for the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen than any other (she gained 25.7% compared to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s 24.6% and Emmanuel Macron’s 21.6%).[5] In Italy’s 2018 elections, those aged 18-24 were more likely to vote for the right (Forza Italia, Lega, Fratelli di Italia, and others at 32.7%) than the centre-left (28.9% for the Partito Democratico and others), Movimento 5 Stelle (28.1%), and Libertà Eguale (8%).[6] In the Spanish 2019 general election, the most successful party amongst those under 30 were the far-right Vox (with 19.4%) followed by Unidos Podemos (17.4%) and the PSOE (17.2%).[7] In the 2019 Greek general election, New Democracy won between 27-30% of the 18-24 demographic and broke Syriza’s unsteady hold on the youth vote.[8]

‘Voting Left’ therefore appears to be a distinctly Anglo-American phenomena. Though such geographic differences are products of complex national political histories, it might be tempting to view such trends as a product of two interrelated factors: the long-term effects of neoliberal reforms during the 1980s and 1990s, and the post-2008 policy of quantitative easing. The former saw a major re-ordering of asset ownership (and power) within and between classes; the latter saw central banks inject huge amounts of liquidity into the financial system, artificially inflating asset prices, while failing to fundamentally impact jobs, wages, or economic growth. Policies that were once hoped to democratize asset ownership and construct a politically responsible middle class have, in the long-run, subverted them. In contrast to the dire attempts to explain these variegated shifts by the young’s profligacy, political immaturity, or ‘snowflake’ insecurity, radical youth-led social movements and democratic socialist electoral insurgencies have been produced by a series of contradictory material—rather than demographic, cultural, or moral—factors. Those with hopes for what The Economist in 2019 termed ‘millennial socialism’ should be aware, as Oliver Eagleton notes in New Left Review, of the instability of this ‘populist’ grouping and how ‘the material basis of its radicalism remains fragile.’[9]

One potential source of fracture could be a major inter-generational transfer of wealth. As Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings note in their new book The Asset Economy, ‘it is in the millennial generation that the economic fault-lines that four decades of neoliberal fiscal and financial policies have produced are becoming visible, and where we find an increasingly intense dependence on family wealth as a determinant of whether one will flourish or languish in the asset economy.’[10] Though the average age of future inheritance for those born after the 1980s—calculated on the average age of the last surviving parent dying—is predicted to be above 64, this does not mean a trickledown transfer may not undermine the temporary unity afforded to those generationally excluded from asset ownership.[11] What has been termed ‘Generation Left’ may thus appear to be a highly unstable, time-sensitive, and Anglo-American political formation.

The anniversary of the 2010 student movement should be a reminder of how much, rather than how little, has changed in the preceding ten years. The intervening years have shown that structural factors can only go so far in explaining the amalgamation of the young into a disruptive, anti-systemic, populist political force, first in the streets, then at the ballot box. Yet just as in 2010, the success or failure of a progressive solution to the world’s planetary crisis will depend on whether a new generation can—in the words of Franz Fanon—‘discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.’

Matt Myers is a historian and teaches at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation (2017)



[3] The Economist (2019) “Millenial Socialism,” February 14.

[4] Generation Left, p. 1.