Invest in youth or pay Thatcher's price

May 8, 1998

Some of us, with only a small tongue in cheek, believe that what happens in student political caucuses today will have a direct impact on national politics in 20 years' time. The National Union of Students has replaced Oxbridge as the breeding ground of politics. And a good thing too.

Not a week, and barely a day, goes by in my life without somebody coming up to me, prodding me on the shoulder and saying: "You're that student bloke." As a former president of the NUS, I am always pleased to be greeted in this way.

Indeed, recently I was approached on the Piccadilly line tube to be told:

"I know you, you used to be Phil Woolas."

Other former NUS presidents whom I have asked about this tell the same story. The reaction among those who remember us is always one of nostalgic friendliness. Even if the last time we met was when they were hurling abuse at some student demonstration! Just like freshers at universities who introduce themselves with the obligatory social graces of 'where are you from, what subject are you studying and, as confidence grows, what A levels did you get?' so too with NUS presidents. They usually squint at you, click their fingers and smile with recognition.

We always bring back memories of the good times people had at university. They never ask what I am doing now, where I am working or living. They just remember their happy days of parties, boyfriends and girlfriends, concerts and that warm glow of "didn't we have a ball". Some of them remember the politics, in my case how much they hated Mrs Thatcher, of boycotting Barclays Bank over its involvement in apartheid, of student demonstrations and union general meetings.

They always leave with a slap on the back and a fond farewell. They never ask what their eyes give away - that they do not think they or I have aged at all or indeed that I have grown up - especially if they know my current job.

Yet all of them believe that they helped to change the world. And I think they are right. The social values of today's undergraduates are those of education in the 1960s, there have been generations of students who benefited not just from their formal education but from the informal contact they made while at university. That informal education is, on the whole, cosmopolitan, internationalist, tolerant and healthy. Long may it continue.

Now I am not suggesting that this is Labour's long-term electoral strategy but I believe that the prime minister, like any party leader, would be well advised to pay particular attention to the student clubs. I do not believe, as many cynical journalists do, that people become student leaders in order to pursue a political career, but it is true that being the president of NUS was an enormous benefit to me in later life. What is also true is that it is possible to trace the success of Tony Blair and of Margaret Thatcher to their respective student political bodies of 15 to 20 years previously.

There is, in this process, a huge danger of patronising the undergraduates. Politicians tend themselves to look back at their early years and say they knew best and that if only the youngsters would do the same as we did then they will succeed. If the parent political party tries to impose its will, or more accurately, if the students allow themselves to be imposed upon, then they will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. None of us knows, in the PLP or the wider Labour Party, what the ideas of the future will be and none of us can predict, much less lead the movement that will, eventually, replace Blairism. So be it. But change there will be and it must come, not from on high but from bottom up.

Mrs Thatcher failed to nurture her own youth movement and ten years on she paid the price. Mr Blair should encourage his youth movement, warts and all.

Phil Woolas is Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth and was president of the NUS from 1984-86.

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