"No one is going to do this for us, so we'd better get it right"

Why the university occupations are giving students a crash course in political activism.

The defining image of the student occupation at University College London is probably a MacBook. Walk past security, through the corridor plastered with hand-made signs, and into the brightly-lit Jeremy Bentham Room, which is overflowing with students, and you'll be struck by the proliferation of laptops. Clusters of large tables are dominated by them, supporting the core of the UCL occupation: the working groups.

The Media Team are updating Twitter, an important tool that has brought the support of a previously reluctant NUS president. "Outreach" are working on the daily leaflet to persuade fellow students to join us. The "Process" group are untangling the complicated business of helping meetings of hundreds to make decisions. "Events" haven't taken a break for days, filling our schedule with meetings and entertainment. "Escalation", a group dedicated to building the movement, debate the next political action before breaking off to start it. The UCL occupation is constantly working.

These groups are largely composed of new activists. Fired up by attacks on education they've joined with living wage campaigners and union members, long active on campus, to form the backbone of the occupation. They are the social media obsessed, apathetic, celeb-enamoured generation of popular myth. But they're taking the emblems of this stereotype - the laptop, the Blackberry, the internet - and turning them into political tools. And for young people often tarred with the apathy brush, they're intensely hardworking. As a new visitor said to me last night, "you're surprisingly disciplined for a group of students".

It's not all hard work, despite the sense of commitment that gets us out of our sleeping bags every morning. As the temperature drops and the huge windows darken, clusters of tired occupiers enjoy music and comedy, provided by some of our 2,000 Twitter followers who've made the trip to Bloomsbury. The floor is covered with sheets and hunched figures paint our latest slogans on them. One security team comes in to grab some dinner from the communal supplies while another replaces them, carrying the books and playing cards they'll need to fill a four-hour shift. But as the day's work winds down, the discussion continues. With music and dancing in the background we keep talking politics.

This is important - in this space, politics has become not something we consume, then cast away, but a process we have to build for ourselves. There's a feeling of a work in progress here, a work that we own. Coming up against the sharp end of cuts brought the occupiers here. What's keeping us here is not just the struggle to defend education, but an investment in exploring how that can best be done. Fighting cuts and fee rises are our goals, but the ongoing experience of constructing our own movement from the ground up is of equal importance.

Let's not be starry-eyed about this. We're not a new "generation of 68", skipping past cops and holding hands across barricades. Implicit in the reclaiming of what constitutes politics is a hard-edged cynicism. Not about our ability to win, or at least to build something of lasting significance, but about university management, the media, mainstream politics and even "our" national union. When it was announced that the NUS President Aaron Porter planned to visit us, no one jumped for joy. A lot of us might be new to this, but none of us is naïve. As the debate stretches out into the night, as we wake up to another day of hard organising work, we continue precisely because of this cynicism - no one is going to do this for us, so we'd better get it right.

Sofie Buckland is an English Literature student at UCL, and a former member of the NUS National Executive Committee. You can follow the UCL occupation on Twitter here and find out about student actions across the country here.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.