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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 UK foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010.

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