Student politicians have an image that is more contaminated than Chernobyl's. They are despised by their fellow students and viewed as creepy, power-mad careerists by the country at large. Yet they are barometers of generational change within their parties. The Young Conservatives were arguing for cutting back the powers of the state when Margaret Thatcher was a mere education minister, and Labour students anticipated Neil Kinnock's modernising thrust even before the 1983 cataclysm.
So what of today's student politicians? First, the Young Conservatives, who are not actually Young Conservatives any more; they have rebranded themselves as Conservative Future (CFUK for short). The Young Conservatives were characterised by "Hang Nelson Mandela" badges and positions so right-wing that even Norman Tebbit, as party chairman, found it necessary to close the movement down. Leaders of Conservative Future refer to gay, black and transsexual friends, even as they espouse hardline policies.
"Everyone was embarrassed by the Young Conservatives," says Hannah Parker, Conservative Future's deputy chair. "When I think of them, I see pictures of people in black ties pulling down their trousers to the camera. The arrogance! It was just appalling. People just assume that Conservative Future are just Young Conservatives. We're not. We had one meeting recently where we had a few speakers and then everyone went clubbing. That wouldn't have happened with YCs. They would have gone for a posh dinner."
Yet if CFUK sets the Tories' future course, the party is heading into clear blue water. The main issue that dominated all my conversations with young Tories was the EU. Withdrawal was mooted again and again, and seen as inevitable by many.
The xenophobia was illustrated with embarrassing clarity at Queen Mary, London, where Conservative Club members protested against the selection of Thibault Muzergues, a French citizen, as the organisation's chair on the grounds of his "alien nature". One member announced by e-mail that "as a full British citizen" he felt it was his "duty to defend these [Conservative] values, on the beeches [sic] if need be".
This eerie sub-Powellite rhetoric is strong among rising Tory student politicians. Almost all predict "a final showdown" with Europe. "If you were a Europhile, you'd obviously join the other lot," I was told, before being informed that Ken Clarke and Edward Heath were "traitors to their party and their country".
The other leitmotif in conversations with CFUK members was the belief in smaller government. Although they all acknowledge that dismantling the NHS would be political suicide, "stealth privatisation" (their phrase, not mine) was suggested through tax breaks for private provision. "I tell people who work for us," said Parker, "there's not going to be a state pension when you grow old."
The attempts to rebrand the youth wing have hit two big obstacles. The first is that Tory students have a worryingly ambiguous relationship with the far right. One former member of the Oxford University Conservative Association committee greeted students to the freshers' stall this year with: "Welcome to OUCA - the biggest political group for young people since the Hitler Youth." Another prominent OUCA figure was thrown off Oxford's student union executive for marching up and down doing a Nazi salute. David Loader, the national organiser for Conservative Future, admits to coming across members who "should be in the BNP".
The other obstacle is painfully clear at Cambridge, my own university: there simply aren't enough normal-looking young Tories like Hannah Parker to go round. Their slicked-back hair, dandruff-flecked tweed suits and even their acne must, I thought, be playing ironically to the Harry Enfield caricature. But, no, they really are like that.
If these truly are the ghosts of Conservative Future, then there is one problem in particular that should be keeping Tory supporters awake at night. Young Conservatives seem always to be accusing each other of sleaze. Accusations of corruption are as common in university Conservative associations as procedural motions were in the old Labour Party. The Cambridge association, which spawned Ken Clarke, Norman Lamont, Michael Portillo and several other ex-cabinet ministers, is now a laughing stock. One of its recent presidents was accused in the local press of buying votes. She vigorously denied knowing any of the people who had made these allegations, including the person who lives in the room next to her. One former member estimates that leadership of the association sets candidates back roughly £200-£300 in "favours".
National Labour Students, however, need hardly worry Tony Blair at all. Many commentators argue that new Labour has only temporary possession of the party and that, post-Blair, there will be a reversion to the old ways. The evidence from Labour Students does not bear this out. Its chair, Brendan Cox, says in perfect new Labourese: "What matters is what works. We have the same values we always had, but what matters to us is ends, not means."
The future of the Labour left looks precarious. "Young Labour Left" is a derisory affair with a handful of members. The only government measure explicitly criticised by anybody at the Labour Students council in December was the voucher programme for asylum-seekers. Otherwise, the outlook was impressively positive and upbeat. There were no "camps" and, despite furious digging, I could find no evidence even of opposing wings.
Labour Students did suffer a substantial drop in membership following the 1997 election and, in particular, the introduction of tuition fees. But membership figures have begun to recover and now stand at 5,000. Conservative Future claims 10,000, a rise of 4,000 since 1997.
Both parties, however, are doing dismally compared to previous decades. In fact, student political wings now consist largely of politically ambitious individuals, suggesting that the parties will struggle to find a new generation of envelope-stuffers.
More important, perhaps, is the shift in the issues that divide the parties. Both orientate themselves primarily around cultural rather than economic issues. The largest cheers at the Labour Students council were for the repeal of Section 28 and the abolition of fox-hunting. I didn't hear the word "nationalisation" once, and nobody mentioned the government's record on inflation. It was all about the softer, "feminine" issues, with particular concern for inequalities of gender, race and sexuality. Conservative Future was the mirror image: its members told me that they "hate feminism" because "men are stronger than women", that homosexuality is "unnatural" and that abortion is "murder pure and simple".
Today's student politicians hardly ever mention the National Union of Students. In an era that stretched from Jack Straw to Charles Clarke to David Aaronovitch, the NUS was the primary forum for student debate and ambition. It has now slipped from student politicians' horizons.
Partly, this is because the union was controlled by Labour for so long - nearly two decades - that it acquired all the characteristics of an unaccountable, self-perpetuating oligarchy. The delegates rarely represented students' views adequately because, although supposedly elected, they often stood on false platforms (and suddenly "became" Labour or Socialist Workers Party when they arrived in Blackpool), or were merely appointed by their student unions without any election at all.
Polarised between Labour and the remnants of an un-Kinnockised left represented by the Socialist Workers Party, NUS conferences have become more akin to football matches than considered debates about the student agenda. One debate was brought to a halt last year by the SWP students chanting, with clenched fists and heads held high, "The workers united will never be defeated". A recent opinion poll for the Telegraph found that more students would vote Conservative than for any other party. Yet a Conservative at the NUS conference would be considered more freakish than the Elephant Man himself. This is partly because the Tories rejected the entire union in the 1980s with the slogan "Nuke NUS", tastefully illustrated with images from Hiroshima.
Now, even Labour Students is retreating from the NUS. This year, it did not field a candidate for the presidency, instead backing the independent (but Labour-sympathetic) Owain James against the far-left candidate Alison Angus. There is a debate within Labour Students about whether its investment of time and energy in the NUS is worthwhile. This is another sign of how the NUS has become an impotent husk, incapable of harnessing even the widespread opposition to tuition fees in any coherent fashion.
Yet it is not only the institutions of student politics that are now bankrupt; the skills that student politicians are acquiring are no longer the skills that will make them the good, "grown-up" politicians they so obviously long to be. William Hague is the perfect example of why students who battle their way through all the "proper" channels are wasting their time. He did everything that an aspirant politician is supposed to do: presidency of OUCA and the Oxford Union, McKinsey, a safe seat at 30, and so on. The Tory machine has thrown up a man who on paper is perfect, yet in practice will never be PM.
This is because the electorate can sniff a hack at a hundred paces. The skills Hague has spent his life cultivating are those needed for success in student politics: numbing yourself to the endless flow of ineffectual motions and resolutions that pass before you, learning to stab opponents in the back with a smile, no matter whether they share your political beliefs or not. To get ahead in student politics, you need to be obsessed with status, and relatively unconcerned with real achievements. Cynics will charge that these are the eternal verities of political classes everywhere. Yet they are increasingly distasteful to the electorate at large, and tomorrow's politicians will have to adjust. The activities of student politics won't help them to do so.
Indeed, student politics actively knocks out of you the emotional literacy and disdain for time-wasting and "scheming" that characterise the truly popular and effective politicians of our age: Blair, Mo Mowlam, Ken Livingstone and (the new) Michael Portillo. It is awful for those wasting so much energy in the best years of their life, but the sad truth is that the good student politician makes a lousy real politician.