A political nursery
Childish campus politics is a perfect training ground for the media-obsessed, censorious politicians of the future.
Many a political big beast has emerged from the primordial soup of university politics, clutching a selection of fluorescent campaign leaflets in one hand, a carton full of jelly-babies in the other, and combining a fixed grimace with a wacky t-shirt.
New Labour cabinets have been stuffed to the brim with former student politicians, including Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, Stephen Twigg and Gordon Brown, and it seems highly likely that the leaders of the future are patrolling a campus somewhere near you, tutoring themselves in the rigmarole of endless meetings, committees and focus groups, debates, initiatives and campaigns.
But if the student politicians are thriving as they always have done, the same cannot be said for the condition of student politics on campus, which is an exercise in all that is paralysing in the current state of British politics. On campus, voter turnout is down, accusations of disenchantment and apathy are rife, the executives are hungry for media attention, and seem obsessed with the need to thrash out a pallid consensus behind closed doors – and then they question why their public is not responding with applause.
Student politics at its worst has a reputation for frivolous and unnecessary politicking and a slavish adoption of the ‘controversial’ trend of the day. A good example is Leeds University, which seems to have been a locus of particularly furious, petty-minded activity from 2001 to 2004. According to Alex Benson, a philosophy graduate of the university, a hundred-strong group of student ‘fanatics’ consistently generated flurry after flurry of new and impracticable initiatives, which were introduced only to be aborted months or years down the line:
‘The student governing body at Leeds tabled a motion at an AGM, attended by the vice-chancellor, to ban Jack Straw from the student union in protest at his role at the time as home secretary, which they perceived as increasingly draconian. They voted for the motion, banned Mr Straw, got wide news coverage, paid for a plaque to be stationed outside to declare the ban, only for the ban to be rescinded…thus making not the slightest bit of difference. Jack Straw wouldn’t have gone drinking in the union bar anyway.’
Further failed initiatives included banning the youth wing of the BNP from the student union ‘which effectively meant banning the young BNP from buying late-night cigarettes, because the union had no security during the day’, introducing an unworkable smoking ban, attempting to retract funding from the student radio station, and banning the sale of the Sun newspaper.
Such rashes of small-scale diktats are not peculiar to Leeds. In recent years, Sussex University has banned the Daily Mail and joins UEA, Bristol, UCL and Cardiff in banning Coca-Cola. UEA also banned an issue of its own student newspaper because it contained an advert for a local strip joint. Students at the University of Sheffield banned Eminem songs and t-shirts in 2001 in protest at the rapper’s homophobic lyrics. Moves to limit free debate dog the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where there were moves to ban Roey Gilad, political counsellor of the Israeli embassy in London, from delivering a lecture entitled, ‘After Gaza Disengagement: What Happens Next?’
But no student organisation has yet capped the campaigning zeal of the Birmingham Guild of Students who have not only banned the university’s Christian Union and frozen its bank account for its refusal to admit non-Christians, but also banned the National Blood Service from attending their freshers’ fair in protest against its policy towards gay men.
Just as the politicians of Westminster are engrossed in a culture of spin and positive PR, so student politicians tend to assess their effectiveness not in terms of the votes they receive from students on campus, but on how often they are mentioned in the local press.
Glasgow University is a case in point. A recent wheeze whereby the student executive blockaded the campus in order to draw attention to the potentially negative effects on students of the exam-marking boycott began at 7am, fuelled by a promise of bacon rolls. The website of the students representative council (SRC) manages to report all the media outlets involved in covering the event, but not the number of students actually supporting the action (100). Their webpage proudly asserts, ‘coverage included the Evening Times front cover, the Herald, BBC 1, Radio Scotland and Sky News…the whole protest which generated this coverage cost the SRC under £170, a mere 0.34 per cent of the proposed annual affiliation fee for NUS, who are yet to receive any media coverage over this issue.’
A hunger for newspaper headlines might explain the recent spate of celebrity nominations to the ancient position of university rector. In Scotland, rectors are supposed to provide the highest representation for the student body, as they are entitled to chair the governing body of the university, the University Court. In the past, figures elected to the position have included Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Sir Robert Peel, Andrew Bonar Law and Rab Butler. More recently, the candidates selected have included Ross Kemp (Grant off Eastenders), Greg Hemphill (a little-known Scottish comedian), Johnny Ball (father of Zoe) and Richard Wilson (aka Victor Meldrew). Some have fulfilled the role more enthusiastically than others, but none was so poor as Kemp, who was asked to resign mid-way through his term of office.
Glasgow University has also installed a number of absentee rectors, including Winnie ‘flaming tyres’ Mandela and current incumbent, the Israeli ‘whistleblower’ Mordechai Vanunu. Whatever coverage these nominations may have generated in the local press, they failed to ignite enthusiasm among the university electorate. Just 11 per cent of students elected Vanunu, and only four per cent selected him as their first choice option.
Voter turnout in the latest round of student elections was similarly dismal. Only 1,073 votes were cast in the election for president (from 17,000 students) but there was no shock at the result, and no handwringing as to why so few had bothered to vote. Certainly, online voting meant it was highly accessible; the problem seems to have been with how far students perceived the election to be relevant.
It may be that the culture of politics on campus is partly suffering because it is so drab. A sense of listlessness seems to be afflicting even those elected to positions of power. Shona Morrison, newly elected president of Glasgow University, told the student publication Qmunicate, ‘I’m not a political person. If, in a few years, a president wants to make big changes and be heavily political that’s great, but we’re not in a place right now that we can do that….’
The emphasis on pastoral care to which Ms Morrison’s comments allude (the abundance of counselling facilities, health and safety programmes and other support services) met with blank stares from the wider student body as positions failed to attract candidates: only two out of eight academic convenor positions were filled while the welfare and equal opportunities board filled four out of 10.
Student politicians, like modern MPs, are finding that they no longer have a constituency with whom they can effectively engage, and instead they rely on media coverage to fill the vacuum. Inspiration seems to be lying down drunk in a ditch somewhere, hiccuping on the sidelines and largely forgotten. But it remains as true as ever that students are capable of activism and enthusiasm when gripped by the opportunity. The student-led defence of the animal experimentation lab at Oxford is just one example – it is just that the majority among those who want to start challenging the accepted state of society have not yet found their voice or a coherent political forum for debate.
Students, like many other sections of society, don’t need to accept the political limitations imposed upon them. It seems they are holding out for a new invigoration and a new attitude to politics in the round.
Emily Hill is working as an intern at spiked.
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