Students lead the third way

July 24, 1998

Campus radicalism never died it just got bored with party politics and found salvation in single issues such as animal welfare and rent levels

Are students as radical as they used to be? In May, the media was full of articles reminiscing about the celebrated uprisings of 1968, when students across Europe rioted against established orthodoxies. Leader writers expounded the thesis that students no longer care about ideology. These days, they thundered, students can barely be mustered to complain about their own poverty, let alone injustice in countries they cannot place on a map.

That is not fair, says Joe Cardwell, an activist for the far left Socialist Workers Student Society, who insists that student revolt is as near the surface in 1998 as it was 30 years ago.

"In the years before '68 people were saying nothing was going to happen and everyone was apathetic. It's the same now - 80 per cent of students voted Labour in the last election. They expected better things - education, education, education - but they're not being delivered. Disaffection can be mistaken for apathy. As soon as there's an outlet for that frustration, it's going to be big. Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't."

Cardwell may have a point. In 1988, the Conservative government introduced the Student (Top Up) Loans Bill. The reaction of students is rarely regarded as having been radical, but the fact is that hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate. In an act of considerable defiance, about 50,000 students unlawfully tried to lobby Parliament. Police horses charged the crowd gathered on Westminster Bridge. The tabloids dubbed it "the Battle of Westminster". The numbers involved in this and other events in the 1980s and early 1990s (such as the poll tax riots in which students played a significant role) were as large as anything in the 1960s, but somehow it just does not reverberate in the same way.

The reason is obvious: in the 1980s, student politics in Britain was self-interested. Elsewhere in the world, students were instrumental in political changes: the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe as the cold war collapsed and, less happily, the Tiananmen Square massacre. In Britain students concentrated on opposing Margaret Thatcher and her government's cuts to university funding.

When we started our guide to British universities in 1992 (The PUSH Guide to Which University), we conducted a study of the political leanings of each student union. This was based on the politics of each candidate elected to the union executive- did they belong to Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats or any of a plethora of hard left groupings? A swing to the left or right was given for each candidate: two left for Labour, three right for Tories, four left for Revolutionary Communists, etc. These were plotted on a swingometer. Most institutions found themselves one or two notches to the left. There were two that veered right: Wye College (agricultural) and Buckingham University (private).

Since 1992, the face of student politics has changed and we changed our scoring accordingly. In 1994-95 we reduced Labour to just one point to the left. Last year, the split was as follows: 67 per cent of student unions were in the centre and 30 per cent were a point to the left. Of the rest, only one university was two to the left (East London) and four swung a little to the right (Trinity College Cambridge, Dundee University, Imperial College and Buckingham). On this evidence, students are no more radical than the rest of the electorate.

In the new edition, published next month, we have abandoned the swingometer - left and right do not mean the same. Two minutes silence then for the demise of student politics?

No. The past year has brought changes. The elections for the new NUS national executive committee demonstrate the point. Of 22 places, only six went to Labour candidates - the fewest in recent memory. SWSS took five but it is independent candidates who, with nine positions, are now by far the largest group on the NEC. Once standing without a party rosette was an electoral kamikaze mission; now it is commonplace.

The most controversial debates at last Easter's NUS conference were not in opposition to the introduction of tuition fees (on which there was broad agreement), but on environmental policies and development of sports facilities. Pragmatism has replaced the idealism of the past. Where once students would have arrived at an intellectual philosophy, "an -ism", and applied it to everything, now they confront individual issues. Students, for example, were among the first to ride the green bandwagon into town and The Third Way was emerging as their modus operandi while Labour was still reading the signpost.

The Tories have realised that they need to dodge the dogma to attract students, but are opting for a different approach. In the 1950s, according to Gavin Williamson, chairman of Conservative Students, there were quarter of a million young Tories, but "it was a social club in those days". "Our main competition is not Labour or Lib Dems, it is the nightclub or the multiplex cinema. It would be great if the party could re-invent itself in the old style." Last year's president at Oxford Brookes SU was elected on a "Party, Party, Party" ticket, so the future may yet belong to the right.

Johnny Rich is editor, The PUSH Guide to Which University.

PARTY MEMBERSHIP

Students lead the third way. Campus radicalism never died it just got bored with party politics and found salvation in single issues such as animal welfare and rent levels

Labour

6,000 signed-up members of the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) plus Labour party members undeclared as students. Reached peak at the general election, remained stable since. Kat Myers, national secretary, NOLS: "Labour students are very clear about standing up for social justice, social change and equality, and these are the issues that represent the views of students."

Conservatives

10,000 members officially, but no definite figures. Insiders admit it is nearer 4,000. Outsiders suggest 2,000. Gavin Williamson, Conservative Students chairman: "Over the past ten years, numbers have declined, which is ironic considering the increase in students." He blames the unpopularity of the last government and hopes to see "an increase post-tuition fees, but it's not happening yet".

Liberal Democrats

5,000 young people and students, including "probably 3,500 in higher education". James Graham, communications officer, Lib Dem Youth & Students:

"Membership's tripled in the past five years. Once someone is brought to the cause, they are very committed ... It's become trendy to speak of the politics of direct action."

Socialist Workers

Outsiders suggest membership is well under 3,000. Joe Cardwell, SWSS part-timer on the NUS national executive: "It must be between 4,000 and 5,000. Goes up and down depending on what's happening... Students haven't been apathetic this year. On March 4, 1.5 million of them boycotted lectures as a protest against tuition fees."

CAMPUS CAMPAIGNS

York University and the Pepsi boycott

International student campaigns are not as dead as many might suppose. In recent years, student unions have conducted boycotts of organisations including Nestle (over its sale of powdered baby milk in African countries) and Lloyds and Midland Banks (over Third World debt). York University students union joined these campaigns, as well as spearheading a boycott of Pepsi for its involvement in Burma, where the military regime is being challenged by the Nobel peace prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. York was also instrumental in ensuring that NUSSL, the buying consortium that supplies most student unions, raised the issue with Pepsi. The company eventually yielded and withdrew from Burma.

Andi Allan, now YUSU's deputy president, services, denies, however, that York is especially militant, "but we're a lot more active. It's a culture of caring about what goes on in the world".

Rent strike at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College

Last summer, 356 students received a letter telling them that building work on a new self-catering hall of residence was behind schedule. Rooms would not be ready until two weeks into term. The letter offered housing off campus or "temporary" accommodation until the rooms were ready. For 200 business and nursing students, this turned out to be Portakabins on the car park with unreliable electricity, poor security, showers across the car park and no catering facilities. The college provided meals in the refectory, but students could not even get coffee after 8pm. Delays continued for another five weeks. The student union argued that students in the cabins should not have to pay and, after a mass rent strike, they also got the college to agree to compensation of Pounds 20 each for every week spent in the cabin and a 40 per cent rent reduction for the rest of term while further problems were sorted out.

Animal activists

The Countryside March in London attracted support from agricultural colleges - not usually noted for their political activism.

Wye College Union Society mobilised 300 of the college's 500 students. In the same year, Wye students also joined the protests at Dover against the European Union beef ban.

Former student union president Jamie Clifford says: "The union is apolitical and so doesn't take a stance on anything. But the march was something that stirred up quite a bit of emotion. So we took a vote and decided to go."

Hunting, however, remains a contentious issue among agriculture students, who tend to be either traditional pro-hunting farmer types or environmentalists. According to Mick Selby, current president, "A lot of students went to the march because they were pro-hunting, but some went because they were against it."

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