Over the past couple of years I have become well acquainted with the world of student politics. I have been an editor for my student union's newspaper and become familiar with the internal dynamics of the union itself. I have also taken an interest in the goings on of the National Union of Students, and I was heavily involved in the officer elections of my union during my second year. This is what I have learnt.
The first thing I realised during my union's officer elections was that so many of the candidates did not have the emotional or intellectual faculty to compete in a thumb war, let alone an election. Many candidates complained about the horrendously stressful nature of the election process but so often these were people who see a future in 'real world' politics, and yet they simply do not have a tough enough hide to handle it. This seems to me to be reflective of a trend among students to be increasingly delicate and whiny - a 'sensification' of student life.
One example of this ultra-delicateness was the fuss made over the election debate's promotional video which I was in. In the original version I said, referring to the debate the previous year, that it 'all kicked off' and it 'got heated' and that 'there's sure to be another issue this year that will get blood boiling'. We had to reshoot this video and cut those three phrases for fear it was all too aggressive for the candidates. Yes, the phrases 'heated', 'blood boiling', and 'all kicked off' are apparently so tormenting to young undergrads that they had to be censored out.
The next thing I noticed was the supreme lunacy and self-loving nature of a number of student politicians. While I was chairing the debate for presidential candidates I started by saying 'look, none of you are going to abolish tuition fees, none of you are are going to smash capitalism, the University is not going to suddenly become free, shouldn't you spend more time on useful tangible changes that you can accomplish and that will benefit students?' Some of the candidates agreed. One candidate however (one of the radical, nail-varnished ones) began his answer with 'these conservative comments from the chair'. There are students who actually think that not believing the president of Sheffield Students' Union is going to be able to smash capitalism and overhaul the underpinnings of modern western society in their nine month tenure makes you a conservative.
Many politically engaged students have this strange idea that the rest of society operates around them, and that their concerns warrant some sort of ultra-special treatment. It's why so many demand the abolition of tuition fees outright without considering the economic consequences, the effect it will have on the standards of higher education or the wider long-term socioeconomic impact. This stems from many young people being under the impression that the world owes them something, a mindset that is nothing new but also appears to be particularly prevalent with young millennials.
The other thing I've noticed is how little student politicians seem to know about politics or current affairs. They may keep up with the news a little on Twitter or their phone, but they don't read much outside of that. They don't know much about the political situation in, say, Venezuela or Brazil. I wouldn't expect your average student to know much about these things, but student politicians who possibly see a future for themselves in some kind of politics really should. Of course part of the problem is only reading papers that reflect their own political views and not challenging themselves. They also don't seem to be very well read generally. They may have read some Marx, Chomsky and EP Thompson, but rarely have they read outside of the bubble of material that reinforces their worldview, such as Hayek, Friedman or Ayn Rand.
I'm also suspicious that student politicians don't actually do all that much. Many of them seem to spend most of their time fantasising about themselves and imagining having a portrait done of them draped in a red flag with various minority groups cheering behind them. Of course this is an overgeneralisation, and many student officers do a great job of running their unions and organising fairs and events. But it seems so many are simply more interested in climbing the greasy pole than they are in achieving useful and valuable change. Of course politics for many students is about a sense of camaraderie and fitting in with a group and social scene rather than independent thinking.
All this is, admittedly, nothing new and there has been surprising continuity in the nature of student politics. Since the early seventies, for example, many student unions across the country have been controlled by tiny trotskyite cults for which few students have major sympathy but who are able to take control of student unions through a lack of participation in elections. These cults have consistently been militant for militancy's sake and they have always been convinced that sitting in a lecture theatre for a few days is going to help achieve radical change for Britain's downtrodden.They rarely count tolerance and open mindedness as a good thing and are often quite explicit about this. Many, for example, see freedom of speech and expression as a secondary or expendable right, not realising how fundamental it is and how it underpins nearly all other basic rights. As I said, though, few have read much Locke, Smith or Orwell.
Maybe what has changed is the rise from the late sixties of identity politics. Christopher Hitchens once eloquently noted how people began to speak about how they felt, not about what or how they thought, and about who they were rather than what they had done or stood for. Each identity group begat its own subgroups and specificities - the 'narcissism of small difference'. This has intensified over the last decade. I recently went to an election meeting for a new board within my SU that was created to hold the Education Officer to account. I went along to vote for my housemate, who was running with a number of other moderate Labour students to prevent the 'radical students' from dominating the board and having their own little power base (like the outside world, the student left is particularly factional and internecine). This was quite the eye-opening experience. The time taken fussing over minute details and the technicalities of the meeting, voting and the order of motions was nauseating. It was so incredibly serious with so few in the room realising how little it all matters. At one point one special snowflake even stormed out in floods of tears after screaming that the room was full of white men. I mean, there were many white men, as well as white women, but in a University that is 85% white, and nearly all the student political bubble white, I was hardly expecting it to be a festival of diversity. The more peculiar radical students then demanded a Co-Chair be voted in at the end. We'd already voted a Chair, under the impression we were voting for just that, not Co-Chairs. But they realised at the end of voting they had a board of all men. They voted a man in one after another then thought they best make sure there's a woman in there, in case people thought they were all sexists.
A good illustration of the thin line you tread in the world of student politics is the response to one person in the same meeting who was promptly rebuked and who subsequently apologised after saying 'self-identifying female' instead of 'non-male' when describing the Co-Chair position. For all their time spent talking about accessibility, this demonstrates just how hilariously unaccessible student politics is to the average student, which is why it engages so few people and most ordinary students think the politically engaged few are frankly a tad odd. But I think that's how many of them like it. They don't like 'others' coming in as it would threaten their position. They like to have their own little club without interference, safe knowing they can virtue signal and play high horses with each other. They know all the 'correct' terminology and they can complain about how unenlightened everyone else is.
The irony is that the great vast majority of students really couldn't care less. They're occupied with drinking beer, going to clubs, getting good grades and securing a good job after they graduate. They're not too interested in smashing the system. Most, according to polls, find student politics 'boring'. Student politicians aren't taken seriously enough and it infuriates many of them. Nobody takes student politicians as seriously as they do themselves, something they'll eventually realise when they enter the real world.