How to Bring Back the Left on Campuses in the UK and Ireland

21/09/2012 10:05 BST | Updated 19/11/2012 10:12 GMT


I recently finished up two terms as Vice President of Queen's University Belfast Students' Union, and almost six years involvement with students' unions. The impulse is to write a little about what I've learnt, in the hope that others might learn from it. The only problem is, everything else I've ever read like this has either sank into self-indulgence or become riddled with cliché. So I'll try to avoid either of those.

My turbulent time as Vice President of my students' union was defined mostly by the struggle against tuition fee increases and education cuts in Northern Ireland. I witnessed my own radicalisation under a Tory government as well as the re-awakening of a widespread political spirit that had been absent from my entire time at University. From the efforts of a small group of people, we quickly saw a whole campus buzzing about one campaign. Students got involved in their Union again in huge numbers. It's no coincidence that the annual Queen's Students' Union member's survey showed that the percentage of students that thought their Union was looking after their interests skyrocketed into the high 80's.

From what seemed like an almost impossible battle, a mass mobilisation of students (mostly, it has to be said, by Queen's Students' Union activists and the incredibly capable Ciarnan Helferty and Lorcan Mullen, then-President and Vice President of Northern Ireland's national students' union, NUS-USI) made education an election issue, froze tuition fees at £3,500 and saved hundreds of jobs by stopping £40 million in education cuts. As well as this, for the first time in nearly ten years, constructive relationships with the trade unions were re-established.

But now it seems that the brief resurgence of student activism has disappeared as soon as it arrived. While the Northern Ireland Education Maintenance Allowance and nursing bursaries are slashed away, we hear absolutely nothing from the students' unions and just words from NUS-USI. Its southern sister organisation, USI, is in a shambolic state. While I have time for some individuals, some of the most rightwing, stupid things I've heard in student politics have came out of USI mouths.

Rather than engaging in something wider and worthwhile, I despair that the majority of student officers now elected in the UK and Ireland lack any sort of convictions or drive to get active beyond organising piss-ups or handing out free condoms. The prevailing mood is one of proud ignorance of the ultimately political factors that control our lives. 'Ideological' and 'political' are pejoratives. That's not to say that everyone should think like me - but they should at least pay some attention to the world beyond their TV screen. All this while education costs mount, students from poorer backgrounds get priced out, get ripped off by payday loans companies and landlords, live in shoddy accommodation, and have their campuses (and societies) privatised around them.

The kind of apolitical trash that is so prevalent in SU elections now is a far cry from yesteryear's radical students from both North & South. They marched for civil rights in the face of danger and murder all around them. They set up their own housing co-operative. They railed against the monstrous injustice of Apartheid through protest and boycotts, aware of injustice beyond their shores. USI President Maxine Brady even once asserted she was prepared to go to jail over USI's campaign to provide information on abortion.

The contrast between this and most of the current students' union leadership - where the only struggles engaged in are living out fantasies of hosting some kind of local variant on a reality TV show or indulging in some largely meaningless pet project - is terrifying and depressing. Meanwhile, the people who do want to organise and get involved in creating a better world are often treated like cranks. It's not a matter of people being interested in doing different things with their time in the students' union movement. It's the difference between switching your brain on, waking up to the world around you, or not. Compared with the students of the past - and the present day radical students of Quebec, Chile and a hundred other places - it is embarrassing and pathetic.

So what should the true descendants of the 1960s student generation who founded students' unions - today's thoughtful, motivated, political students - do? How do you bring back the mass student left that once used to dominate campuses? When I talk of the 'student left' I'm not addressing any particular grouping; I mean any left-of-centre student activist.

What right have you to dictate to us, or anyone? No right at all. I'm just someone who's been involved with students' unions for a long time and would really like to see the apoliticism end. I want to stop having to shake my head and wince at news of how little campaigning the organisations I used to be involved in are doing.

I realise this will piss off the apolitical officers AND all the lefties. These are just some helpful (I think) suggestions, based on seeing the same mistakes made by activists again and again in every students' union I've ever visited in the UK and Ireland in the last six years. It's not exactly "Rules For Radicals," but it's lessons based on my experiences. And if you disagree, let's debate!

1. Work within the Students' Unions. Many lefties spurn the students' unions entirely, believing them to be so bureaucratic they are beyond any salvation. This is often (but not always) a mistake. Any democratic institution, if used in the right way and by the right minds, can be turned into a lever for positive political change. Compared to the trade unions, the effort and pressure that needs to be brought to bear for the broad left to effectively use a students' union for good, political ends is miniscule. Many students who are 'switched off' will start listening when their union provides leadership. The power, resources and legitimacy that students' union backing of a campaign can provide shouldn't be underestimated.

So, run in students' union elections - run people for both full-time and part-time positions, effectively, in all levels in every union. It'll only end up helping the causes we care about.

2. Control the conferences, and conference elections. Elections to the leadership positions of the three national unions in these islands (NUS, USI and NUS-USI) are controlled by delegations sent by each union, usually made up of elected delegates from each campus. If the left can come together and run large amounts of candidates in many campuses, then they can effectively control the national unions.

This is especially important in the Republic of Ireland, where part of the reason for the shambolic state of USI is due to the cronyism that amounts from some delegations are hand-picked and not democratically elected. This is wrong, and you may need to work within the democratic structures of the offending unions to change it. (That, of course, feeds in to point number one.) You can't complain about apolitical union officials if you're not prepared to replace the apolitical conference delegates that put them there. This can be done - in fact, it's been done before. A mass left-wing student coalition controlled the NUS Presidency from 1973 to 1982.

3. Don't argue, convince. I cannot stress how important this is. Time and time again, I see a lot of lefties in debates shouting down people who disagree with them, laughing, sneering at them, ranting at them, rather than using evidence to try and convince people that they are correct. If we are so correct, can't we prove it? Of course we can. So many people on campus who consider themselves engaged and left of centre are turned off by political action partly because of the behaviour of many (often justifiably outraged) activists. It's because of these sneering attitudes that we've got into a situation where 'socialist' is often used as a pejorative on our campuses. Saul Alinsky summed up this problem perfectly when he wrote,

"The failure of many young activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. (They have overlooked) even the most fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience and gives full respect to the others values. (A rhetorical radical) uses the tired old words and slogans, calls the police "pig" or "white fascist racist" or "motherfucker" and so has stereotyped himself that others react by saying, "Oh, he's one of those," and then promptly turn off."

Convince, don't rant. Speak effectively, calmly, listen to the other's arguments and use evidence. This is the typical student activist's biggest failing but it is easy to fix.

4. Be more respectful of difference - less infighting between student factions, please. Even as a left-winger, It took years for me to have any respect for the far left on campus, because, as a Green, many of them looked upon me as dirt. I couldn't possibly be a socialist, or a progressive in any way. I embodied all the worst aspects of my party / ideology and was held personally responsible. If the actions of an individual or cause was not 100% pure, it was seen as 0% good. Then followed the aforementioned sneering, shouting down, etc. Silly feuds between different factions are totally counter-productive and distract from actual campaigning.

5. Run to win. When it comes to elections in unions or at conferences, some on the left place too much concern on running to 'make a point.' In an election, making a point lasts for the duration of the contest. Run to win. A point lasts for five minutes, but being elected to something gives you a platform to do more than just make a point. It's obvious, but there's an awful lot of this carry-on.

6. Unite. One of the reasons why the modern campus left lacks the influence it once had is because it deliberately limits its scope and is too focussed on having purity. It's head-bashingly frustrating seeing campaigns develop and then remain embryonic because of an insistence to adherence to a certain sub-ideology. Centre-left types are unlikely to work with more left-wing types they might derisively call 'trots' and the far left don't work to work with those who they would derisively call 'liberals.' This is silly and needs to end.

Many people who believe in good causes and are good activists find engaging in more formal politics distasteful. You might find these people in Amnesty International societies, single issue campaign groups (on refugees, homelessness campaigns and the like), etc. These people are already active on other issues. They are easy to engage if approached properly - which feeds into the point about communicating properly.

So there it is. It's so difficult to write down this quick article on what I've learnt without invoking tired student activism cliché, but you'll find students at the heart of many of the world's greatest historical struggles. That should continue. Take aim at the nearest injustice and go for it.