Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Right is Getting it Wrong on Student Politics

 In my last post, I touched the way that Labour Students engage with student politics. While the direction of the article led me to focus largely on the negative consequences, there is a big positive in that they engage at all. I mention this only in that the way that Labour - and the Liberal Democrats, for that matter - treat their youth organisations stands in stark contrast to the Conservative Party's abysmal approach to its own, which has left Conservative Future as an anaemic, seemingly toothless organisation compared to its rivals on the left.

 As an illustrative example, let us compare engagement with the organisations on a national level. Both Labour Students and Liberal Youth can get 300-400 people to a full-blown conference, in the Liberal's case twice a year. At these conferences the executive is held to account and motions get debated and voted on. Now, CF don't have a conference or the ability to set policy, so lets use the only figure we have for comparison which is the last executive election. If clicking links isn't your thing, I can tell you that just over 170 people voted overall, and considerably less for several of the races. 170. These people didn't need to go anywhere, they didn't need to pay for travel or accommodation, or find a free weekend in their schedules to attend a conference. They had to send off for a ballot paper, get it, and send it back with some crosses on. Such is the state of Conservative Future.

 Why are we in this position? In my opinion, its because Conservative Future is not a very exciting or empowered organisation, and the party likes it that way. After all, a large paper membership allows us to boast of being the largest political youth organisation in Europe whilst avoiding the effort and potential problems involved in an autonomous political youth organisation. The result is a culture where CF almost instinctively avoids engaging with student's unions and the NUS, leaving their vast budgets and position as the 'voice of students' uncontested in the hands of the left.

 Looking back at the history of Conservative youth movements, the reason the Conservative Party is wary of autonomous youth movements is evident - the Federation of Conservative Students. The FCS, or 'Maggie's Militant Tendency' as it was otherwise known, was an extremely autonomous, extremely active student organisation. The problem was it also provided a platform to very, very right-wing people who were then associated with the party nationally - the infamous 'Hang Nelson Mandela and Other Terrorists' t-shirt being the most famous example. Back then the Conservative Party operated parallel youth organisations (I have no idea why), and so whilst the FCS was shut down and replaced by the Conservative Collegiate Forum in 1986, it cast a long shadow over its sister organisation, the Young Conservatives.

 William Hague's amalgamation of the Young Conservatives, CCF and Conservative Graduates into Conservative Future in 1998 helped to further suck the life out of the conservative youth movement. The party never supported the efforts of its students to counter the NUS, so they stopped trying. Similarly, it showed at best very little interest in students unions and supporting candidates running for positions, so again the culture died off in a lot of places. 

 This is a shame because getting involved in student politics isn't nearly as insurmountable an obstacle as many conservative students think. In the Manchester student union elections last month, we got four councillors (up from one the year before and zero before that), and if CF had the same ethos about student campaigns as the Labour Club we'd have got seven or perhaps eight. Many Conservative Future university branches have the numerical strength to form strong campaign teams, which can deliver not only union positions but also NUS delegates, and even one or two Conservative delegates per university makes a fair bloc.

  Provided it could be prevented from indulging in FCS's excesses (and this isn't the Eighties, I imagine its doable) an autonomous student organisation would be good for the Conservative Party. Being an active presence on campus attracts more publicity and is more effective recruitment than a lonely Fresher's Fair stall, also offering more to students than a group of drinking buddies who occasionally go leafleting together. Engagement also helps to train young conservative activists, honing their communicative, presentational and political skills. Finally, it starts to challenge the left for control over the institutions that claim to speak for all students, and represents right-of-centre students to those bodies.

 The problem, perhaps, is that there isn't an independent student Conservative organisation, distinct from CF (as Labour students are from Young Labour). CF covers every Conservative member from (I think) sixteen to thirty-something, so its membership is too diverse to coalesce around student-centred goals.  Conservative Future's Wikipedia page describes its aims as "to encourage Conservative Party values and assist in local and general elections". That is all well and good, and nobody is denying that young Conservatives should be engaged in such activity. But that should not be the be-all and end-all of what the Conservative Party youth movement has to offer. If the party believes its own rhetoric about empowering ordinary people and sharing responsibility, it should practise what it preaches and place some trust in its students.

What we preach.

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