Welcome to a new forum for students

Students are constantly being portrayed as apathetic, as blind consumers of bland 'tick a box and yo

When I heard the New Statesman was relaunching its website and devoting part of it to campus activism and the issues that affect and inspire students, I was pleased to accept the opportunity to write for it.

Actually scrap that very polite start - not exactly hard-hitting for a radical. Truth is I bloody jumped at the chance. Students are constantly being portrayed as apathetic, as blind consumers of bland 'tick a box and you'll get a job-style higher education' - not to mention maxing out their credit cards when they're not snoozing till midday or stumbling home blind drunk.

Yes ok, some students enjoy a pint or two but there are also active feminists, environmentalists, gay rights campaigners and other politicos. Thousands upon thousands of us joined the call to Make Poverty History, thousands of us form a key part of the anti-war movement and apart from our proud history of social and international campaigning, students have also shown themselves instrumental in taking action on campus-specific issues. Like when Frank Ellis, a lecturer at Leeds university, commented that black people are inferior to white people.

At that point the NUS Anti-Racism/Anti Fascism committee and the student population at Leeds took action. They stood up and fought for his dismissal on the grounds that all students have a right to study in an environment free from discrimination. And their actions had an undeniable impact, with Dr. Ellis being suspended for breach of the Race Relations Act.

 

Radical canvas?

 

Time and time again students protest about campus closures, course closures, library closures, halls privatisations and sell offs and in support of our staff - we don't always win, but we always try. These and countless examples of other action go unreported. The point is that students defending resources, standing up to on-campus racism and lobbying the international community are all part of the 'radical' canvas - the activism and ideas that will make this site a cracking read and a sparring ground.

As the president of the NUS and as a former women's officer at Liverpool John Moore's university my personal connection to the concept of campus activism might seem obvious. NUS has traditionally fought for the rights of students and has been the seat of angry student voices through the years, not to mention being the former stomping ground of some rather politically engaged public figures. Jack Straw, Charles Clarke started here as long-haired lefties (whatever went wrong eh?).

Now more than ever NUS is urging students to get active to protect their rights. We think that students need to protect their right to education on the basis of ability not affluence, to protect and promote their rights to demand excellence for their money and to negotiate decent pay and conditions as they enter the seemingly inevitable part time job market to make ends meet. As I'm writing this, ministers are muttering that Muslim students shouldn't wear the veil on campus, and they are proposing that lecturers should 'monitor' students who they suspect of extremism. Protecting our right to expression and fighting to keep our campuses free of the racism, fear and suspicion that flies in the face of civil liberties is part of the brief of the 'radical'.

Anger over top-up fees led thousands onto the streets of London to support the NUS Admission: Impossible campaign. The halcyon days of free education are over. But surely when Tony Blair (who got one of those much yearned after free degrees) made his commitment to 'education, education, education' ten years ago he didn't intend to add a footnote 'for those who can afford it' - which is exactly what his government have instituted with their variable fees.

 

Make your voices heard

 

That a market is creeping into the sector, swaying students’ choices and creating a crude bums on seats marketing drive by some universities will no doubt take up some room on these pages. That student 'customers' are being gagged by unfair contracts will feature if NUS has anything to do with it. And they are the ones that even get into Higher Education. This year alone there are around 15,000 less students are going to University, our fear is this trend will continue, with some students priced out of education for ever.

Hopefully, what will come out of these pages is an expression of the diversity of student activity and opinion as well as the new challenges that students are facing. The Vietnam war and anti-apartheid marches were easier when education was free and one in five of us weren't in part time jobs. But we still march, lobby and make our voices heard. On this site we'll hopefully hear as much from part-time students, mature students, and students in FE whom the NUS are helping empower to shape their own education. Campus radicals ... bring it on.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change