As the general election campaign gets underway the choice for students and young workers has never been clearer. On the one hand you have a government led by a party responsible for staggering tuition fees, deaths of thousands from cut public services and in complete denial over the terrible living standards and low wages the youth face in Britain today. On the other hand you have a party built from working class organisations campaigning for a radical manifesto including the end of tuition fees and the establishment of a National Education Service for free education from cradle to grave. It is no wonder then that 48 hours into the general election campaign 316,267 people registered to vote with 65 % of them under 34 years of age. At the previous election, 61 % of eligible 18-24 year olds voted Labour. 2 years of cuts later and that figure is bound to increase.
Therefore, it comes as quite a shock that the students unions under pressure from their national body, the NUS, have enforced rules to prevent student groups from campaigning or declaring support for any political party over the course of the general election campaign. Birmingham Marxist Society (along with the other political societies on campus) were told by Birmingham Students Guild that they are forbidden to do so under a 2014 charity law that states that any registered charity must remain neutral over the general election campaigning period. They were furthermore told that this was explicitly highlighted to the Guild in a meeting with the NUS leadership.
It is not just Birmingham University where this has been a problem. At Durham, the co-chairs of Durham University Labour Club have been suspended from their positions by the students’ union for campaigning for Labour.
Though this law has been in effect since 2014, this is the first time these measures have been actively enforced by the NUS, at the most crucial period in the radicalisation and politicisation of the youth they represent. This clearly represents a betrayal of the leaders of the official student movement. Years of demoralisation and pandering to bureaucratic politics have left the student leaders totally inept at the most crucial time. Their reforms of the NUS in March this year hammered this home as they continued on a path of cuts to NUS services and lower NUS membership fees as an attempt to solve the NUS’ financial woes rather than tackling the real reason for lack of student interest in the NUS which is its out of touch attempts to neutralise political discussion amongst the youth. The fact that student unions and the NUS have had to resort to charity statuses to keep funding rather than acting as proper unions 100 % funded by and representing their base membership’s interests shows how far the student movement leadership has fallen.
The Tories are running scared of the impending youthquake that could be mobilised against them. This is why they have played dirty tricks such as holding the election when students are busy with exams. Clearly, they have put pressure on an alienated layer of bureaucrats at the top of the student movement to act as a break on the student movement’s radicalisation. This is treacherous. Though these student bureaucrats lean on the claim that taking a political position would be inappropriate when representing a wide student body of differing views, in reality by enforcing neutrality upon student unions and political groups, they are suppressing the overwhelmingly supported political view of youth and students in the name of harbouring the reactionary views of a smaller, privileged layer of students.
For years we have been told that student unions won’t get involved in party politics and instead focus on pragmatic politics of single issues campaigns that stand for student interests. Every student union election year after year sees later-to-be-broken or haplessly inadequate promises about dealing with the mental health crisis and yet when a clear choice for a government that would invest £845 million for youth mental health services and put counsellors in every secondary school comes about, the student unions sabotage the ability to campaign for that prospect just so that a small handful of privileged students whose parents can afford the tuition fees and don’t need a part-time job to fund their living costs at university aren’t annoyed.
Student unions should transform themselves into a fighting organisation working in students’ interests with the ability to endorse political parties or candidates who fight for us and our universities. If our student unions’ statuses as charities hinders student activity on campus, then their statuses must change. The impact of student mobilisation through their coordinated representative bodies could be decisive in securing a Corbyn led Labour government with a radical socialist programme that presents a real fight for student interests.
Ed Maynard, Birmingham Marxist Society