Leader: Wobbles on the way to maturity

The spirit of revolution seems absent in today's students, but that's not to say that they're wholly apathetic and lazy

June 26, 2008

When a University of Cambridge student is arrested after punching another and attacking a couple of bouncers, one might be forgiven for thinking it just another example of our fiery and spirited radical young undergraduates.

But this was no political protest. The young woman in question had simply lost her temper after being defeated in an end-of-term jelly-wrestling contest, and the only spirit came in the form of a bottle of Lambrini, a drink marketed as "a celebration of being female, carefree, and up for some fun", which the bouncers had tried to confiscate.

If it appears that the only parties today's students are interested in are the ones with loud music and lots of booze, the 2005 British Election Study would seem to support this. It shows that students are less likely to vote than the general population.

The ones who do take the trouble to vote can, however, provide a pretty good indication of the political landscape of the future. A new poll by Opinionpanel of the political views of the student population over the four years from before the last general election until now reveals that it is the non-threatening, free-thinking Liberal Democrats that are the party of choice. They have cleverly courted the student vote, emphasising their commitment to improving students' finances - they pledged to scrap tuition fees at the last general election, although that policy is now under review - and are the only party that does better among students than among the electorate at large.

Today's undergraduates are concerned more with getting good jobs than with political posturing - and why shouldn't they be, with all the debt they have accumulated? They want to earn good grades and go on to earn a good living. This bodes well for a future generation of scholars (academics attest that students work harder than ever before and are keener to master their fields) and graduate employees.

If this survey is a guide to voting intentions (and, according to the report's author, Paul Whiteley, professor of government at the University of Essex, although many students' political beliefs are not fully realised, research shows that by the time they reach their mid-twenties most will have fairly well-formed opinions), then the future really is orange.

And if today's students are eminently sensible in voting for the party that seeks to improve their conditions, it seems that the new rebels are the Conservatives as they become the party of the smart young politicos angry at the Establishment but keen to make their way into the corridors of power.

Gone are the days when the average young Tory was a spotty 19-year-old with a bow-tie, bad hair and a braying laugh. Some whisper that it is even fashionable to be Conservative. The Daily Mail declared that "Blue is the new black: Why it's suddenly (gasp!) trendy to be Tory" over a story in which Dylan Jones, style commentator and editor of GQ magazine, says voting Conservative used to be as uncool as liking Phil Collins - but not any more.

None of this bodes well for Labour, even if it does boast that famous firebrand "Red" Jack Straw, Secretary of State for Justice, who is known for having been a radical during his undergraduate days. Perhaps in 30 years, we'll look back on some of the current cohort in the same way, for even Mr Straw was known in student political circles for also being hard-working and ambitious.

And rest assured, the antics of our students can still raise the blood pressure of Middle England, as a reader posting on the Cambridge student story in The Daily Telegraph shows: "If these people are the future politicians, leaders and captains of industry in this country, God help us."

Anyone for jelly-wrestling?

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