I mean, you'd think it would be pretty obvious. Students' union - the clue is kind of right there in the name. And yet, there still seems to be considerable confusion on the part of some.
Given recent events, the rugged individualism which so defines both conservative values and our increasingly-marketised Higher Education system - that famous "I'm alright, Jack" mentality of looking out solely for oneself - perhaps ought to be renamed 'Lawlor's Rule' in tribute to the student columnist who famously suggested that because he's not a rapist, all measures to prevent sexual assault on campus are essentially now futile. In the furore that followed, many claimed they failed to see the relevance of the individual in question's oft-stated affiliation to his university's Conservative Society. But it is relevant, because Lawlor's article spoke directly to a self-centred worldview which says things are absolutely fine the way they are and nothing need ever change - when clearly the issues at stake may not affect or even apply to them.
With SUs currently electing next year's Officer Teams, a fascinating backlash has now started to emerge: conservative students have decided that it's time to "take back" their SU from those "loony lefties" whose PC shenanigans and slap-happy boycotts seek to establish something approaching a more equitable society for all. They rail against such "ideological nonsense" in their own manifestos, despite intending to propagate just that if elected by deliberately downscaling their SU's ability to campaign on key issues. Cloaking themselves in veil of a non-partisanship, they state that SUs should focus "exclusively on services that benefit students". But hey, guess what? They do that already through advice centres, clubs and societies, academic representation, food & drink outlets and much more.
The point is, then, that both practically and politically, the campaigning element of students' unions don't really need to represent these people, since their own interests are already well-served. "We shouldn't campaign on fees!", say those who apparently consider a marketised university system to be entirely satisfactory - coincidentally because they are well-placed to afford it. They often rail against the steps SUs take to keep women safe on their campuses, to push back against investment from fossil fuel and arms companies, or - perhaps most ironically - to challenge curricula which fail to represent a diverse student body. Instead, they claim, we should be focusing on "real" issues for "real" students - though frankly, if sexism, racism, inequality and the environment aren't real issues, then I'm not entirely sure what are. (I guess when you've been brought up to believe that the universe bends exclusively to your will, your 'right' to ogle a pair of tits over breakfast on Page 3 really is a big deal.)
Critics frequently decry the metrics by which the political stances of SUs are determined - namely, electoral turnouts. "Too low!", they cry; "Not enough people voted to make this legitimate!" (again, a fairly ironic criticism coming from those who are often happy for the Conservative Party to claim an electoral 'mandate' with less than a quarter of the population's support). But they should be reminded that these numbers remain broadly representative samples which capture a snapshot of general opinion. Non-participation in the process does not automatically denote acquiescence with either of the two opposing views.
"But lefty views are alienating to more conservative students!", I hear you bleat. Well, yes - in the same way that Conservative Party politics is alienating to practically everyone else. Frankly, this is the same blinkered logic that allows David Cameron to bemoan the prison/university ratio among young black Britons, yet fail to acknowledge or correct the structural issues underpinning such inequity. It's also the same double-standard that permits a public outcry when Bahar Mustafa sarcastically tweets a tongue-in-cheek hashtag during a debate on liberation politics, then ends up being threatened with prosecution for a Hate Crime. (Hey, man, under the rule of 'free speech', isn't she, like, entitled to that opinion...?)
Conservatives in general have a fascinating conception of what constitutes a meritocratic or level playing-field. It goes like this: a six-foot tall gig-goer takes their place in the crowd next to a wheelchair-user. Who gets to utilise the four-foot viewing platform that's been installed to even things up? Both, or neither at all: that, after all, represents true equality of opportunity.
Clearly, it doesn't feel too great when the shoe's on the other foot for these supposedly now 'disenfranchised' groups. However, such feelings of dislocation are the inevitable by-product of a system which has stubbornly ignored plurality for too long. If conservative students fail to see themselves reflected in the politics of SUs, I would suggest that this is precisely because their values are often antithetical to the principles of collective altruism which so define unions. Once again, the logic remains one-sided: just as they constantly berate left-wingers for not making enough of an effort to assimilate a wider range of viewpoints, so too do conservative students either need to start acknowledging their own positions of privilege or begin empathising with people outside of their immediate social circle.
If this doesn't happen, the result will inevitably be a stalemate - for it is the conservative's inability to see the world through the eyes of others which so often results in a failure to acknowledge that their interests are already represented. The people who speak for them walk the corridors of power. They constitute a social demographic which has - knowingly or otherwise - benefited for centuries from the existing way of things. Why, then, would they (or anyone else) ever need a union?
But that's the very definition of conservatism: move along, folks, everything's just fine, nothing to see here. I'm alright, Jack; business as usual. Historically, that's just the way conservatives have always wanted it. After all, the clue is kind of right there in the name.