SOME say that student politics are a joke. They are mostly right. It is often a place where people with few friends and even fewer ideas compete to see who has the best puns on their leaflets, the blandest slogans, or the most dishonest and abdicative political platforms.
Had student politics been this alone, I would never have got involved with it. When I arrived in 2008, however, things were just beginning to kick off. The “Left” at UCL at this point consisted of about eight people sitting in the European Social and Political Studies common room, in what was the UCL Free Education Campaign (which included the Lib Dems). We’d just got £500 of funding from the union to run an awareness week about tuition fees. Meanwhile, an amorphous network of free education campaigners had managed to call a national demo for February 2009, to which about 800 people came. This was supposed to be a great success.
The story of how we went from there, to the Save Modern Languages Campaign in 2009-10; to the NUS national demo; to hosting the biggest and most successful campus occupation in the country in 2010; to the 2011 demo organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, is partially a story of grassroots activism. But none of it could have happened on the same scale without the resources and profile that UCLU, and NUS, managed to deliver.
This is where I think we need to draw a distinction between student politics as a joke (the kind that makes people lose all perspective on life), and student politics as it should be understood. We get involved in the union not in order to further our careers or to marginally improve clubs and societies’ bureaucracy; we do it because, for the past few years, students have changed the landscape of British dissent. In 2010, it was students who kick-started the first anti-austerity movement the UK has seen in decades, sparking into life a movement of ordinary working (and increasingly workless) people everywhere, who are sick of the failure of neo-liberal capitalism and the political classes that serve it.
Equally, on campus, it is student activism that has forced UCL management into making (albeit dishonest and vague) promises to pay the London Living Wage to cleaners; it was student activism that helped defeat large-scale cuts to the Life Sciences Faculty in 2010; and it was student pressure that has kept the Main Library open 24 hours during exams. Within the union, we have used our positions to pay all employees – including, at last, student bar and café staff – a Living Wage. Moan about the Left all you like, but we do make people’s lives better.
The results of the 2012 Spring Elections constitute the strongest election result for the Left in decades: left wing and anti-cuts candidates won every single contested position in the union. Representing students academically, and fighting for free, accessible and democratic education is no longer a niche society activity. Campaigning is now the priority of the union.
Renewed arguments about what student unionism is for are common to campuses across the country. As UCLU begins to push in earnest for a democratisation of how UCL is governed, and as it builds alliances with campus trade unions, it will come into friction with College management, who have already sought to sabotage our independence. This term, for example, they emailed all students and told them which way to vote in a referendum and refused to let us change our constitution – both of which are nationally unprecedented moves. Meanwhile, familiar accusations will be levied from the Conservative Society and friends: that the union has been “hijacked” and that activists only represent “a tiny minority” of people at UCL.
None of this is remotely new. The “silent majority” also opposed the “activists” when we tried to mobilise the student movement against apartheid in South Africa, and when we organised en masse against the Poll Tax. The commercialisation of student unions, and of NUS, has since given the anti-political tendencies within the student movement more of a base for organising. But the fundamental issue is the same: should unions be primarily service-providers with bars and societies, bound to neutrality for fear of offending the political right, or should they be trade unions for students – campaigning, political organisations whose primary purpose is fighting for their members and for a better society? With the biggest turnout in UCLU’s history, students have made their choice.
Leaving aside the broad directional and political change on results night, there were two old psephological (psephology: the study of elections, usually undertaken by frothing-at-the-mouth swingometer-wielding maniacs) chestnuts hiding in the background. The first and main story is the rediscovered strength of the Islamic Society, who mobilised on a progressive platform and swung every single election.
The second is something that I can only describe as the “hockey factor”, wherein candidates from the UCLU Hockey teams do inexplicably well in union elections. In 2010, Matt Burgess, having done basically no campaigning and never held a union position, beat several strong candidates to become the Finance and Services Officer. This year, Sam Page came within 13 votes of being elected as Welfare and International, having also never held a union position.
These were also the best result of their kind in years from the perspective of Liberation. (Puzzled Able-bodied Straight White Men, or PASWM: don’t worry if you don’t know what this word means – you will after next year). Around half of UCLU’s officers in 2012-13 will be LGBT, and a similar number black or ethnic minority, although the gender balance is still not perfect. This on its own will make a change from the Posh White Man Syndrome that has come to dominate both UCL and UCLU for decades (basically forever, in fact). What makes next year really interesting, however, is that the winning candidates are not “box-tickers.” They were elected, almost all of them, with an explicit mandate to fight for equality and justice for every student at UCL.
There is much work to be done on this front, at college and within the student body. For example, UCL has a poor record on employment for black and ethnic minority staff, with a significant underrepresentation in academic pay-grades. Where black staff members are overrepresented (in manual grades), there have been constant attacks on pay, pensions and conditions – very often without any attempt at equality impact assessment. Undercurrents of Islamophobia, sexist “banter”, homophobia and transphobia still permeate UCL on a day-to-day basis. Simply “being global” and “having liberal roots” are not reasons for complacency.
If you ever wanted your union to take Liberation seriously, next year will be a good year. Some of this work will be structural, with the creation of proper campaigning networks (and maybe even a sabbatical Women’s Officer), but much of it will be cultural – a challenge to the social and economic privilege, and sense of entitlement, that is so rampant at UCL.
Some say that student politics is a joke. Most of them are right. The difference next year is that the campaigning energy of the student movement will have been brought comprehensively into the structures of the union. To the extent that student politics can be meaningful and useful, next year’s union will be. These results complete a process of politicisation that has been taking place on campus for three years; they bring some of the most talented of UCL’s activists and academic reps into office with a mandate to transform the union and the university, and to take the fight to the government on fees and cuts. This will be difficult, and it will mean a relentless succession of hard work and political fights. I wish I could be there.