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Fees, Lib Dems and political Islam: the real concerns on campus

Forget the old idea that students don’t care about wider politics, says David Miliband. My tour of u

Labour's problem in 2010 was politics and not just policy - how we understood (or didn't) our relationship with the country, how we were
organised, the internal culture, the retreat to a narrow base and even narrower appeal. It is true that "good policy makes for good politics", but renewal demands that we address fundamental issues of how we do politics.

Good politics is not about tactics, opportunism, squaring circles and cutting corners. It is about opening up a dialogue of respect, engagement and action with people that informs us as it inspires them. So when Ed asked me to take Labour's message to Britain's university students, I was enthusiastic.

In truth, I didn't know what to expect. One of the university professors we contacted told me: "We're quite surprised you are willing to venture into the lion's den." I didn't see it that way. I am linking Labour Students with the Movement for Change to campaign for a living wage for university employees such as cleaning and catering staff - real issues.

Liberation campuses

After five visits to talk with as many as 2,500 students at Kent, Durham, Edinburgh, Leeds and Birmingham universities, here are some early impressions. They are not scientific or unbiased - but they are real.

First and foremost, it is impossible to talk to students and not be reminded that university is one of the great social and economic liberations of our age, and that British universities are a great global resource. Students are, in the main, enjoying the experience. And they are coming to Britain from around the world. When I spoke in Birmingham about my visit to Gaza, up popped a student who was from Gaza - so it is not just the obvious places. Our universities are a microcosm of the global village, so government plans to restrict the number of students attending British universities are met with bafflement.

Second, the idea that students couldn't give a damn isn't true. We organise my meetings through politics and international relations departments, but also widen the net. So physics students (thank you, Hannah) ask about prosecuting war criminals, just as politics students (thanks, John) can ask about ethics. And because this is an open conversation not a political meeting, I would guess that there are not just Tories, Liberal Democrats and Greens in the audience as well as Labour supporters, but also a majority of undecided voters.

I do a 20-minute conversation with a professor, then a question-and-answer session with the audience. They don't want a lecture. This section of the population wants a reflective engagement with big issues.

Third, fees are an issue - people don't like them and are worried about debt. I get a question on fees at each meeting, but these young people have more to talk about. Perhaps it will be different for the £9,000 generation starting next September.

There isn't much hate around - even for the Lib Dems. True, students are not generally at the sharpest end of struggles against poverty or insecurity, but the anger at the unacceptable faces of capitalism is mixed with concern about what can be done. The counterpart of little hate is little faith. I have been incredibly impressed with the committed Labour student clubs around the country - 30, 50, even 100 students passionate about their politics. But they know that the large majority of their fellow students are waiting for a message that speaks to them.

The truth is that all politicians are struggling with new big questions. No one has an easy answer to the shift of economic power to the east. The rise of political Islam - led by Turkey, Indonesia and Egypt and, in my view, a very welcome alternative to global jihad - is creating a whole new set of power relations within Muslim-majority countries, and between the Muslim world and the west. Europe's political and economic turmoil is raising fundamental questions about the future of the multilateral system. It is not enough to be against things. You need something to be for.

Value system

Fourth, this may not be an age of ideology, but neither is it an age beyond values. It says something that Labour Students should be campaigning for a living wage - beyond the obvious "student issues". I get a few questions about parliamentary socialism (it is 50 years since my dad published a book of that title) and a lot of interest in the riots, inequality, the Occupy protests.

These youngsters were in the main aged six or seven in 1997. Thatcher is a name from history not memory. Major doesn't register. They take individual rights in a pluralistic society as a birthright - after all, the age of individualism is about gay rights and women's rights, not just the economics of deregulation. They want to live in an open society, but are wary of our collective ability to solve big problems. It is obvious to them that markets need morals. The question is how to ensure them.

Fifth, I have been reinforced in my prejudices. One is about the need to rethink government by the people if we are to rehabilitate government for the people. The Movement for Change is training 10,000 community leaders around the country over the next four years. It is not aimed at students, but includes them. Its message has chimed with some on campus because it is about motivation and action, not bureaucracy and vested interests.

One way to counter despair at conventional politics - at St Paul's and elsewhere - is actually to try to do something. If the old ways worked, we would not be in opposition. And if we build a genuine movement, we will be not just more likely to win, but more effective in government if we do so.

David Miliband was foreign secretary from 2007 to 2010

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide