The VICE UK Census: Lefties
Once a dated university cliche, they are now dictating the political conversation.
All photos by Chris Bethell
Who are they? Lefties.
What are they? When Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party confounded expectations in the 2017 general election – essentially by not losing as badly as they were supposed to – the surprise result was largely credited to a surge in youth turnout. The numbers certainly made it look that way. Whereas in 2015 the 18-24 showing was around 43 percent, this year YouGov put it closer to 58 percent. Since then, it's been taken as read: Britain's young people are resolutely left-wing.
Yet how meaningful this political identity is – or at least how it's realised – is a different matter. As widespread as left-leaning politics seem among people under 30 right now, that doesn't mean all young people are lefties.
Because a lefty – an actual lefty – is something different. Sure, you voted Labour in the last election and you follow Owen Jones on Twitter. Friend, that doesn't make you a lefty. When did you last lose an hour to some dog-eared Marcuse? How many times have you had to narrowly evade arrest with a distress flare in your hand? How often do you catch yourself talking about inheritance tax at house parties? More than your average Canary reader, the UK's real dyed-in-the-wool lefties are a new school of engaged and outraged activists and thinkers. Away from the political and social mainstream are a group of young people who want the future to be very, very different.
For this instalment of the VICE UK census, we spoke to a range of self-professed left-wingers, from up and down the UK. We asked them about their politics, their lives, who influenced them and what they hope to influence. Meet Britain's most angry and idealistic subculture.
Milly, 23 (Photographed)
I was always taught to question things. Some of my earliest memories are of being in my grandad's room, where he had this little typewriter, and he'd send letters to people about legalising drugs. Then on my dad's side, his dad did a PhD in the 1960s and wrote this book about how riots have been really important to British history. I studied Politics at Birmingham University, then I won a scholarship to do Gender and Media at Sussex, so I went there, and then I got funded by a research council to start my PhD back at Birmingham.
In academic terms I'd say I'm a poststructuralist feminist. For my PhD I'm looking at the ways in which the government portrays the obesity crisis and presents a concern for people's health, even though they are systematically dismantling our health system. If you're fat you're a "drain on the state"; it's your individual responsibility to be fit, and if you're not we can dehumanise you on television, strip you down to your underwear and tell you you're worthless. Then when we relate this to gender, what does that mean? What do new technologies like Instagram and tracking devices mean for women? There are quasi-religious undertones to how women diet. If you go to a slimming club you're supposed to sit around and confess. Clean eating infers that if you don't eat clean, you eat dirty, which means you're impure.
I campaigned for Labour, did a lot around Birmingham. To be honest I was quite optimistic as the campaigning was going on, speaking to people who seemed disillusioned by the Tories. I stayed up on my own on election night, and when the exit polls came out I did a roly-poly across my room – I was so happy. For ages it had seemed like everything was shifting to the right so massively. Even though it wasn't a win as such, it pushed against everything that came before it.
I've been a Labour Party member since 2012. I felt Ed Miliband was certainly a step in the right direction, but after attending a conference fringe event with the late Tony Benn and then-backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, I realised there were still many like-minded people in the party, so I signed up. I was asked by a friend to stand as a local council candidate in the 2015 elections for a ward in my hometown of Bideford, Devon. I relished the opportunity, which coincided with my final undergraduate exams, and received mixed results on both fronts – a 2:1 degree and getting elected onto the Town Council but not the District. Since being on that body, I've ensured the Town Council pays all its staff the real living wage of £8.45 an hour and successfully applied for a £20,000 grant from the Rural Community Energy Fund to help set up a renewable energy cooperative.
I currently live with my family, and work as a photographer. I've been aware of politics for as long as I can remember. I remember the 1997 election, which saw Tony Blair elected, and I didn't like him at all. I was a perceptive 10-year-old. I used to be right of centre, but was quite left by the time I turned 16. My grandparents were campaigners for the Liberal Democrats many years ago, so my family has always been politically active. I've often had people immediately dismiss my views when they hear I'm left-leaning. I've been insulted and sworn at for my political beliefs. When someone's views perpetuate or encourage discrimination, I will usually confront them about it.
I work for the largest provider of rental cars in the world. This amounts to doing customer service for anyone and everyone encountering rental car related mishaps in any English speaking part of the world. The hours change every week, the work is as stressful as it is inane; overall, it's a great use of my first in Politics.
I was heavily involved in the student movement for a while, occupying buildings, attending demos and generally causing mischief. I also got involved in anti-austerity campaigning and stuff around anti-fracking, taking part in community organising as well as a load of direct action. These experiences were some of the best and worst of my life, and I spend most days thinking about them and if things could have been done better or differently. The biggest misconception people have about leftists is that they are all young, middle-class whinge bags. Don't get me wrong: that's a solid section of the red wedge accounted for, but I have met so many self-educated, disadvantaged and oppressed people who still fight and live passionately for their ideals.
I get judged every time I reveal my beliefs even slightly to anyone who thinks Peter Hitchens is an academic authority or buys trickle down economics as a social theory. I'm mixed race so I tend to get on poorly with proper racists, which is reciprocated. Also, I really dislike centrists. I can respect a Tory, as I know where they stand theoretically, but I ask you, why would you be a Liberal Democrat? I mean, come on, really, why? It just seems like a poor political choice indicative of wider failings on a human level.
After working in the games industry for a few years I started getting more interested in gender and race politics due to the obvious disparity there – a real shock after growing up with mostly women. I would say I'm more of a passive consumer of political information and I like to discuss it, but due to the time and energy – and thick skin – required to really be involved I'm not that active. I rarely go to protests, though I voice my support by writing to my MP and voicing support or disapproval for things occurring in Parliament. A lot scares me about the future: the lack of political concern about our environment which is rapidly declining, the ageing population, which means I may never get to retire, and the rise of populism all make me worry.
I first became political quite reluctantly on the other end of the spectrum. My family is quite conservatively religious, so when I was younger I ended up in a lot of "family rights" protests, marching against same-sex marriage legislation and anti-abortion campaigns. As I grew older and more aware it became something that I was quite ashamed to participate in. I started to have friends who were LGBTQA+ and saw their struggles first-hand rather than relying on this weird demon boogieman that was instilled in me. So I started marching mainly to throw my support behind the people who I grew to love and wanted to defend.
As a cis white guy there's really not much that has been done to me which could be deemed unfair. It's why I stand alongside people who have been treated unfairly. At the end of the day all people want to do is exist without having things stacked against them. The kids who are fighting for representation at such a young age are going to be powerhouses when they're older. We just have to invest in our current generation of teenagers and do what we can to make politics accessible for them. There are so many people out there so much more qualified and literate than myself in these topics, and they're the people we need to be setting up for greatness.
I used to go to protests and stuff when I was at uni. When I reflect on it now, I kind of don't see the point in going to protests any more? I see people with signs like "Love Trumps Hate", and that's great, but that's a slogan. What does that mean? Are you going to support charities that help refugees? Are you going to go to Yarl's Wood? Are you going to go to Calais and support the refugees there? Or are you just going to take a photo of the protest and put it on your Instagram? That said, it's interesting to see the power play against the baby boomers who are in these big CEO positions and have these really old views which are still affecting society. I'm just waiting for the day when our generation turns 40 and we can actually start getting shit done.
The majority of my politics comes a lot from how I was raised. My family are Muslim, and in Islam there's a really big drive towards charity. Ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable are taken care of has played a massive role in how I now interpret politics as an adult. I think that's why I would almost define myself as left-wing, or very left-wing, because the idea that a collective few have a lot while there is abject poverty everywhere else is really repulsive to me. I wish I didn't judge people based on their beliefs, but the only way I can describe this is that I once slept with a guy and the next morning I rolled over and asked who he voted for and he said the Conservatives. My housemates said, "I've never heard you shower for that long in your entire life." I think it was the referendum the night before and he said he voted for Brexit, and I was like, "Oh."
I first became political when I was about 26 or so, when I saw an increase in political discussion on Facebook. I think it's my duty to research topics that impact me. Having said that, I was definitely impacted by my Facebook bubble. I do have an internal bias towards people with different political beliefs, but I try to not let it show as I talk to them, as I think it's important to understand why they think the way they do. I have never been proud to be British – I am grateful to be British. I don't think being born into a certain country is something to have pride in, as it's not an achievement.
I currently rent a house with a few other people in Birmingham. I work as a support worker for adults with learning difficulties and mental health problems, and am currently studying for my Masters in Social and Political Theory. My job for me is a political undertaking; the work is something that has to be done, and the care sector is heavily underfunded. Staff working conditions are not great, and for many people working in this area there is a lot of precarity, wage deflation and risk. I left a very enjoyable and well paid job to come and work in social care.
Additional reporting by Marianne Eloise.
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