Universities and the arms trade

Campaign Against the Arms Trade's Tim Street on the links between British universities and arms comp

In recent months, students and staff across the UK have been lobbying their universities to sell their shares in arms companies and invest ethically.

When University College London students discovered that their university had £900,000 invested in Cobham (which manufactures components for Hellfire missiles- used widely in both Afghanistan and Iraq)they formed Disarm UCL in order to bring this relationship to an end.

In a meeting with student campaigners, UCL Provost Malcolm Grant received a petition signed by over 1,200 UCL students, staff and alumni calling for UCL to ditch the arms shares. Such overwhelming support for the campaign led him and UCL Council to announce that the university would invest its money ethically.

UCL is by no means the first university to recognize the importance of ethical investment.

Campaigners at Manchester University held die-ins and other high-profile events, culminating in 300 students passing a Union motion for ethical investment. This has led to the university engaging directly with students concerning the future of university finances.

Furthermore, protests, petitions and student journalism have caused SOAS, Bangor (University of Wales), St Andrews and Goldsmiths to take real steps towards ending their financial ties with arms companies.

Progress towards transparency and accountability on campus has occurred because activists have used persuasive moral and financial arguments to explain why investing in the arms trade is unnecessary and wrong.

For example, they have shown that universities can fulfill their financial duties whilst investing ethically and maintain a good rate of return.

Ethical investment funds that preclude arms company shares are among the most profitable. In the past decade the Church of England’s £4.3 billion ethically-managed fund was the second best performer of more than 1,000 funds.

Furthermore, the fact that the majority of university arms investors hold less than 2% of their overall investments in arms companies means that divestment will not have a significant impact upon their portfolios.

So why is it that some universities try and cling on to their arms company shares?

Perhaps an answer can be found in the burgeoning number of research projects at UK universities which are conducted in collaboration with arms companies.

At a committee meeting in 2006, Malcolm Ace, Director of Finance at Southampton University, told students that it would be ‘hypocritical’ to sell his university's shares in BAE Systems when it receives hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of research funding from them year on year.

Research collaborations provide substantial funding for university departments – but in return for them becoming outsourced research facilities for private companies. Universities' science, engineering and technology agendas are inevitably shifted from independent research to the stimulation of particular industrial sectors: like the guided weapons technology centres at Cranfield University and Imperial College London, part-funded by arms company Qinetiq; or the 20 University Technology Centres funded by military aerospace giant Rolls-Royce. (See "Soldiers in the laboratory: Military involvement in science and technology," Scientists for Global Responsibility).

Arms companies are already subsidised by public money to the tune of £890m annually, yet universities are expected to provide research for these already over-protected companies.

Whether or not students and dons regard the commercialisation of higher education as financially necessary, they shouldn't be made to contribute to commercial interests which involve not just corporate profit, but the development of products designed to maim and kill; nor to collaborate with companies whose core markets include conflict zones and human rights abusers

Campaign groups such as Disarm UCL, which are prepared to highlight the gap between an institution's professed commitment to “tackle humanity's most pressing problems,”3 and the economic reality, are thus vital if public money is to cease being channeled into the pockets of arms company CEOs.

For without anyone questioning the status quo, institutions renowned for their commitment to internationalism and human progress will continue to support companies whose profits rest upon proliferating weapons and sustaining international tension.

You can find out more about Campaign Against the Arms Trade by clicking here

Tim Street is the director of UK Uncut Legal Action

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.