Friday, 25 March 2011

Initiation or Incubation? Left-Wing Leaders and Student Politics

I recommend to all of you Bagehot's excellent article about a 'Policy Forum' Ed Miliband recently attended in Nottingham. Reading it, it bears a striking resemblance to Tory Bear's infiltration of David Miliband's Movement for Change last September, and shares similarities with my own encounter with Ed Miliband's leadership campaign in January. Although the size and mood of each meeting is different, the thing to note is that in all cases the Miliband in question is insulated from contrary opinion, often by means of a discriminatory entry policy or some other artifice.

What led from that observation to this post is that this is not a practice restricted to the national leadership. Young Labour and Labour Students both have a reputation for having ferociously anti-competitive political cultures, where most elected positions are stitched up beforehand and usually uncontested. This might not be true, but given the way that Labour's current crop of leaders try to confine themselves to friendly audiences you can see why people might get the impression that they weren't acclimatised to hostility as student politicians.

It would be a grave injustice to try to single Labour out, however. Nearly all the Labour Students I know all manage to combine centre-left or left-wing politics with a distinct lack of sociopathy or aggression, and I count many of them as friends. If an anti-competitive culture does exist, they at least restrict it to their own organisation. Other elements of the university left do their best to ensure that the entire student union is completely hostile to dissension and right-of-centre ideas, as personal experience has taught me.

Such an element.

Recently, at the University of Manchester Student Union election results night a group of various hardline left-wingers formed an aggressive, chanting mob that surrounded, shouted and spat at perceived class enemies in the ranks of the students, including myself. One Labour student, who tried to intervene with the argument that it was wrong to chant about putting certain students on fires after guillotining them, got assaulted by somebody who had just won an election.

Another, much less serious example would be the 'occupation' of the Universities of Manchester Conservative Future meeting by a half-dozen such people who tried to disrupt the meeting and imprison us in the room. A more long term example would be the newspaper articles you might have seen cropping up here recently that I wrote for The Mancunion, UMSU's student paper. I've wanted to write for it since I started university, but it took me two and a half years to develop skin thick enough to do so.

In general, left-wing groups within the university often serve as a sort of ideological feedback loop, largely immune from outside influence while they reinforce and amplify the convictions of their members, and we can see these same traits in evidence when it comes to the leadership of major left-wing institutions such as the Labour Party. Contrast this with the behaviour of centre-right leaders. Cameron Direct involved David Cameron fielding questions live, from an unfiltered audience, on any manner of topics. From what I know of Ed Miliband he would struggle intensely with any similar activity.

I can contrast Miliband perhaps even more easily with Nick Clegg, who came to speak at the university when I was in my first year. He didn't have his people sift the crowd, and he answered with a remarkable degree of frankness all manner of questions. One notable example was a planted question about the then-new Liberal Democrat campaign, "Homophobia is Gay". The question was of the common sort asked by somebody itching to take offence. Rather than pandering to the prejudices of the room, as I expected, Clegg brushed it off and told the questioner to "get a sense of humour". All in all, a fine performance. It is precisely the sort of open-to-all question and answer session that Ed Miliband would pretend to hold two years later.

One is drawn to wonder about a link. In many ways, throwing something at a police officer or going on a march is a lot easier than facing off against an articulate opponent of your ideology and viewpoint. More than any other party, Labour actively engages itself in student politics, to the extent that disputes over sabbatical candidates for union elections can be settled by central office.

Beyond that, the people who go on to become the General Secretaries of trade unions, or the spokespeople for certain public- or third-sector organisations, also grow up in this environment, where decisions are often taken via a bizarre series of painstakingly inoffensive hand-gestures known as 'consensus'.

Does this lead to a leadership corps raised in a left-wing bubble-world, unused to debate and the cut-and-thrust of adversarial politics, often guilty of pandering to a party base of, to quote Bagehot, "economic flat-earthers" and highly uncomfortable outside a controlled environment? One can't help but feel that it does.

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